Reviews of this epic based on the true story behind Moby Dick are mixed – but personally, I’m entranced. Intense, well-paced and complex, it combines blockbuster action with interpersonal politics, the guilt and moral turbulance attached to survival in the face of a disaster, and that most fatal, inescapable of human flaws – greed.
For the most part, it’s impeccably acted. Admittedly I’m biased in some respects, as everything Ben Whishaw does is gold to me, but his portrayal of Herman Melville comes through strong and layered despite the limited amount of time he spends on-screen, and he has excellent chemistry with Brendan Gleeson as the haunted storyteller. Chris Hemsworth carries the movie easily for the most part, but there were certainly a handful of moments which a less experienced actor could not have handled for him to sink his teeth into. He plays well against a fairly understated performance from Cillian Murphy. The more interesting relationship, however, is with Benjamin Walker’s entitled Captain. Power plays are ten a penny in movies, but this one is played out – and resolves – a little differently.
(Don’t get any ideas, shippers, unless you’re willing to foray into fanfiction. You’ll only be disappointed!)
Maybe the most impressive work, however, comes from the makeup team. I have a no-spoiler policy, so I won’t say too much – only that it’s haunting. Very effective.
One of the things I liked most about this movie is its modern values played alongside those of the characters. These days whaling is, for the most part, something that our society finds cruel and horrific. All too often in films you’ll see characters subvert the thinking of their times so that the audience can identify with them as heroes more easily, or ignore them altogether – there are hundreds of examples of this here. In this movie, however, there’s no such thing. Whaling is depicted as savage and barbaric. Nobody makes a conciliatory remark about how they’re magnificent beasts and it’s a shame to harm them. Shots of humans making either practical or petty use of various whale products are scattered through the movie. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the film implies they get what they deserve, but it’s certainly thrown out there.
It’s interesting, though; it complicates the characters. Similarly, there are plenty of events in the film that may muddy our views of the various characters, but there are no obvious villains. Some arguments have no clear ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Some gestures are justifiable and some are not.
As such, I don’t really know where any great dislike for this film comes from. To each their own, of course, and I’m sure it feels like a long story to endure if you’re not enjoying the subject – but it’s varied, visually impressive and contains some fairly challenging material for a blockbuster movie.
Besides. How many films are there that save the vast majority of their horror for their last few lines? Again, no spoilers, but never mind the whale; it’s clear that the real monster in this movie is that history is doomed to repeat itself. And that’s a true story we can all get behind.