12 – 117mins – 2015
THE ONLY WHALER IS ESSEX
“How does a man come to know the unknowable?”
The answer to that question is to hound another man until he eventually relents and spills his darkest secret. This is the questionable journalistic technique Moby-Dick author Herman Melville (here portrayed by Ben Whishaw) employed to gain insightful knowledge on a nautical nightmare from haunted former Essex cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), who survived a whale attack – and 90 days thereafter stranded at sea – between 1820-1.
“The courage to go where one does not want to go.”
Based upon Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2000 non-fiction biographical book of the same name, Ron Howard’s sumptuous maritime epic recounts the “cursed” whaleship’s woes, from their departure from Halifax dock to their sanity-straining post-disaster survival ordeal.
“Going fishing, are we?”
Benjamin Walker plays the Essex’s inexperienced-but-well heeled captain, George Pollard, who shares a fraught relationship with his “landsman” first mate, Owen Chase (Chris “The Huntsman” Hemsworth). Incompetent and fearful of being belittled by a lower rank – and class – Pollard blames Chase for the listing and eventual capsizing of their flame-engulfed vessel, dividing the crew when they must unite to stay alive on the Atlantic Ocean aboard mere rowboats.
There is a darkly humorous irony that the men who happily harpooned, gutted and physically crawled inside the head of a bull sperm whale in order to take home 2,000 barrels of whale oil, later find an albino of the same species getting inside their heads – albeit metaphorically – so convinced are they that the ”vengeful” whale is following them. If Jaws: The Revenge was set a century earlier…
“Where knowledge ended, speculation began…”
Oscar-winning director Ron Howard coats the screen in an aquatic grey/green sheen, delivering the requisite grit and grime of a less refined age, but overlaid with a misty-eyed gloss which distances the audience from the tension of immediacy. I can only presume that this often dizzying, foggy lens was a stylistic choice due to Thomas Nickerson’s storytelling aspect of the narrative.
Nevertheless, the portrayal of the giant “white devil” and the damage this majestic sea-beast bestows upon the ship and crew is breathtakingly realised, even if all along you know at least one member of the crew survives to tell Melville this inspirational story. As hunger and desperation overtake morality, the remaining crewmen have to make an unthinkable decision – and while this is implied rather than depicted (as it was in the BBC’s 2013 Martin Sheen-starring adaptation of the same book), their desperation is palpable, as is the castaway’s relief upon returning home to Nantucket after such a harrowing living hell on high water.