This well produced 2011 mini-series of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick gets quite a lot right in its casting (William Hurt, Ethan Hawke, Gillian Anderson and Donald Sutherland), however the limitations of its television origins are shown in the disappointing special effects.
Like in Melville’s 1851 novel, Moby Dick follows the whaling vessel, The Pequod, and its driven captain Ahab (Hurt) as he attempts to hunt and kill the huge white whale which destroyed his ship and took his leg. Ahab is a man driven by revenge. His sole focus is to track the beast and he shows a total disregard for his crew and everything around him. The tale of Moby Dick is about insanity driven my obsession and Hurt is able to portray this in a subtle way. In Hurt’s hands, this is a role of ocean depths, and he adds a great deal to Ahab’s character. He gives him humanity, rather than playing him as an over-the-top madman.
Ethan Hawk also does good work as Ahab’s first-mate, Starbuck. It’s a less flashy role, but Hawk makes the character feel real. Charlie Cox’s Ishmael is less successful, coming across as a weak and weedy character. As a narrator Ishmael doesn’t have to be strong character, just likeable. Meanwhile, Gillian Anderson appears as Ahab’s wife – a character who does not appear in Melville’s original text.
As a director Mike Barker is able to fill Moby Dick with some fine performances and well built tension. However, this is often let down by the film’s poor special effects. The titular Moby Dick just never looks real enough to be believable. It’s a shame because this is a well made production – it’s just that the television budget (reported at a not insubstantial $25 million) can’t rise to top-tier CGI.
A handsome and well acted piece of entertainment, Moby Dick may not reach the heights of the seminal 1956 film starring Gregory Peck, but this is a noble attempt at delivering an epic tale to a wide audience.