Several cinematic adaptations of "Moby Dick" -- Captain Ahab's mania-driven hunt for "the white whale" -- have appeared on big and small screens over the years, but balancing Herman Melville's novel with casting a wider audience net has proven to be a tough undertaking. John Huston's sepia-tinted version (review here) nails down its melancholy essence and adventurous magnetism, but can't avoid the off-and-on discomfited demeanor that Gregory Peck brings Ahab. Conversely, a late '90s TV series from USA Network employs a fine Patrick Stewart-led ensemble, but falters in direction and updates to the source. Encore's miniseries looks like it could get that blend right: an assortment of award-winners and stalwart character actors fill out the crew of the Pequod, while a modified script navigates the themes explored aboard the whaling ship. With Melville's intentions hammered into its bow, this commendable adaptation from Shattered director Mike Barker intermittently succeeds in translating the novel's demeanor and concepts for a modern audience, and even while it suffers some cumbersome issues that root in the translation, it manages to not capsize this sturdily-constructed, mostly reverential take on the story.
The story itself first centers on the Pequod's second-in-command, Starbuck (Ethan Hawke, Daybreakers), gathering together its crew for a whaling voyage, from young, no-sea-legged Ishmael -- played here by Stardust's Charlie Cox -- and the tribal "cannibal" Queequeg to the other harpooners, oarsmen, and deck hands that'll serve under maddened Captain Ahab (William Hurt, A History of Violence) on his journey to hunt the ocean's beasts (or, in Ahab's mind, beast in the singular sense). Encore's miniseries gets its hands dirty with the crew's varied and conflicting personalities, which enhances the conflicts that will arise later on with their personal outlooks; some will have trepidation over Ahab's threadbare leadership, others abide by the seaman's code and simply have faith in their wild-eyed helmsman. The script takes this "conflict among men" aspect that bolsters the novel and works towards updating its meter and casualness, rounding down the prose-heavy density of Melville's language to make its themes of obsession, personal faith, isolation and mutiny more absorbable.
There's something visually familiar yet inspired about this Moby Dick, something that stands out early on during the plot's eatablishment. Rich, tempered blues and tans showcase clear inspiration from the sepia-filtered processes that John Huston implemented in his version, while careful composition and focus on its characters and action alludes to Peter Weir's Master and Commander. And the subtle shaky movement of the camera once aboard the creaky Pequod lends realism to the production that's noticeably inspired by modern techniques -- not nauseatingly kinetic like Battle: Los Angeles or Greengrass' Bourne films, but reflective of the modern faux-documentarian trend. Navigating around the reproduction of portside Nantucket engulfs Starbuck's gathering of the crew and Ishmael's exploration with ominous rusticity, as it should, through eye-grabbing elements like lunged spears through wood signs, the dank air of a wooden tavern, and the mustiness of a nautical church. In a low-key manner befitting its television roots, it alluringly replicates the 1800s aesthetic.
Enough about its outer hull: Moby Dick primarily thrives on the vacuum of intrigue around barmy Captain Ahab, an area where this miniseries deviates in some unconventional, hit-and-miss ways. William Hurt seems a superb choice to fill his peg-legged limp and gristly mania since he elevates villainous roles with restrained madness, but while Ahab should naturally possess a mix of pragmatism, obsession, and humanity, the caustic poise Hurt brings isn't villainous enough. He's hindered by one of the miniseries' most noticeable departures: it takes a passing comment in the book about his adoring wife, Elizabeth (Gillian Anderson), and introduces her, and his young son, into the beginning as semi-primary characters. Watching a seemingly obsessed man of the sea tenderly interact with his family removes some of the story's darker intrigue and alters our first impression, and while there's something worth saying about a man who sacrifices mind and body for revenge with disregard for his family, the way it's presented here and carried out -- especially in the "mentorship" of Ishmael -- humbles the captain's ferocity into more human, empathy-drawing, softer-edged mania.
Keep in mind, though, that this spin on Moby Dick works towards both feeling like Melville's novel and enlivening the tale of revenge and archaic whaling with a more current cinematic eye, and Encore's miniseries accomplishes more within those parameters than expected. Inelegant gap-filling exposition and streamlined dialogue are evident, assured to disappoint devotees of Melville's, yet there's something inherently magnetic about its windswept theatricality and the blunt-headed reproduction of its core ideas, from the camaraderie amid the actual whaling -- which is invigorating, masculine, and respectful to the characters -- to the ebb-and-flow exploration of the bonds built alongside the Pequod's many months at sea. Even if Ahab's temperament pulls back from what it should be, the crew in general doesn't suffer that fate: the diverse mix of romantic devotion to seafaring hierarchy and levelheaded realism comes through loud-and-clear by way of a well-tuned cast, including Ethan Hawke's solemnity as Starbuck and the cheeky gruffness Eddie Marsan (Sherlock Holmes) brings to shipmate Stubb, navigating the waters of Ahab's impractical blood-thirst and the threat of mutiny over it.
Even considering its disciplined pace over three hours, an awareness of the arduous length of time the crew's at-sea, and the grand propulsion behind the hunt for the whale himself, this Moby Dick can't extend beyond being much more than a hotel painting version of Melville's story: adamant in presenting the source's focus and embellished to catch the eye, but lacking the substance to make it memorable. Notable moments bring it close to that point, such as a brief exchange between Starbuck and Ishmael where the chief mate talks about the boat "dying" under Ahab's leadership, and the sheer ambition coursing underneath this take on the Pequod's war with nature and madness clearly shows. Had it exerted more finesse in its artistic license-taking (along with a clearer perspective on the size of the mediocre CG whale himself), it could've sinuously married its components of dramatic authenticity and modernization of Melville's story, but in this form, with curious beats skipped and a simpler-minded perspective on preserving the story's ideas, it merely holds attention as a vigorous alt-take curio draped with the book's skin.
Video and Audio:
There are moments where I want to really like Vivendi Entertainment's 1.78:1-framed widescreen-enhanced DVD transfer, but they're clouded by some rather glaring issues. The cinematography's pale tea-soaked palette holds true, allowing faint skin tones, the slate-tinted shade of blue in the water and sky, and the ever-present burlap veneer to retain a vintage presence that dresses the experience admirably. But that's where the positives stop: heavy, detail-swallowing contrast in dark scenes, mosquito noise around contours, and some rather unsightly combing and ghosting due to interlacing mar the visual composition. The thick visual style does overcome its digital issues, but they're occasionally a bit rough -- especially when moving about on the dark, restless Pequod.
Mostly, the Dolby Digital 5.1 track picks up whatever slack is left by the visual transfer, creating a fine surround stage and a clear sonic focus on the all-important dialogue. The crash of waves under a whale's tail fin and the general splashing of water do come across as thin and without punch, but the creaking of wood in the Pequod's underbelly, the submerged sound effects of the whale passing through the water, and the dissipation of voices into the open ocean air create a natural space for Captain Ahab to belt out his furious mania. No subtitles are available, period.
Unless you can chalk up a scene selection menu as a special feature, then we've got nothing to work with here.
While, yeah this isn't the live-action version of Herman Melville's story to watch if you're wanting an accurate Spark Notes glimpse at the content, there's an intriguing perspective that this altered look at Moby Dick offers. Taking the dressing and thematic core of the novel and embellishing it in spots to craftily -- and conscientiously -- update the classic tale, a strong cast and polished aesthetic unswervingly guide the mad captain's thrust towards revenge on nature itself, which can occasionally be exciting and absorbing to watch. Some of its themes get lost in its extended outlook, namely the degree of madness in a less-frightening take on Captain Ahab, but the book's DNA can clearly be seen in the miniseries' appealing construction, exciting pace, and outlook on a crew serving underneath a mentally unstable, vengeance-hungry leader. The DVD from Vivendi Entertainment isn't great, sporting some digital hiccups and a dearth of extras, but the disc and series are heartily worth a Rental.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site