The true story that inspired Herman Melville’s iconic Moby Dick was told in a tale full of intense emotion, dramatic forces of nature and sea crew hostilities in a new BBC saga.
An aged cabin boy, played by Martin Sheen, recounts his experience on the Essex, a whaling ship that sunk in 1820 and left its crew adrift at sea. The ongoing conflict between the new Captain George Pollard, full of naïve confidence and high aspirations, and his level-headed, matter-of-fact First Mate Owen Chase, was established immediately, and it was this conflict which guided the dynamics of the group of mariners throughout their traumatic experience. The two men, played by Adam Rayner and Jonas Armstrong respectively, provided the most commanding and emotionally fraught performances – in contrast to the rather meek portrayal of cabin boy Tom Nickerson himself.
The Essex and its crew set sail from Nantucket, Massachusetts in 1819, but are forced to travel thousands of miles into the Pacific Ocean in search of the whales they seek. Not long after their first kill, a whale attacks the ship and it sinks, leaving the crew stranded in the middle of the Pacific, thousands of miles from land. After travelling in small whaling boats for weeks they eventually arrive at an island, but it isn’t long before the crew consume the island’s meagre resources and are forced to set out into the vast ocean again. As the weeks pass the men begin to die of starvation, consider resorting to cannibalism and become increasingly paranoid that the whale is lurking underneath them, waiting to strike again.
Although the horrific experiences of the crew were portrayed superbly, what was missing from this drama was the whale itself. The shots of the magnificent creature cruising through the deep waters were underwhelming, and the slow motion scenes of the men being splattered with whale blood were overly contrived. The production failed to capture the strength, power and menace of the whale itself, only briefly returning to the creature during the crew’s final days of starving hallucinations.
Although there were moments of cliché, especially during Martin Sheen’s clunky and overly sentimental narration, The Whale is an epic drama of sea adventure, the ability of humans to survive despite the odds and full of moral implications as well as nail biting moments. A thoroughly enjoyable watch.
You can also read our Cheat’s Guide to Moby Dick, Melville’s novel based on the story of The Whale.
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