TV Review: The Whale

Sunday 29 December 2013 by

The Whale, BBC, TV, Christmas

© BBC Pictures // Zena Holloway

It takes me forever to catch up on TV. Unless I’m sitting there when it comes on, it just waits amongst the other recorded programmes for weeks until I remember I REALLY wanted to watch it and switch it on.

Poor, poor BBC drama The Whale. It suffered at the hands of the record button until this weekend. And now I wonder why!

First of all, check out the cast – Martin Sheen, Paul Kaye, David Gyase and even Jonas Armstrong (he might not be acting royalty, but his performance in this was fantastic). The Whale tells the story of the whaling ship The Essex, which, in 1820, was sunk on its maiden voyage by a whale… There’s been a book written about it too (In the Heart of the Sea – worth a read if you get the chance), and is the story that inspired Moby Dick.

As a tale, it’s a pretty dark and tragic one for Christmas time. The crew aren’t the nicest of people and their career path even less so. In fact, even the protagonist, Tom Nickerson (the older played by Martin Sheen and younger by Charles Furness) grates a bit. He’s not particularly beguiling as a character.

In sharp contrast to the book, there is a lot of skimming. There are obvious reasons for this – several months aboard ship, followed by weeks at sea, a couple of weeks on an island and then a further 89 days at sea, all has to be crammed in to an hour and a half. But you feel like you’re dragged along the story rather hastily in order to get to the exciting bits. And although this works in many TV dramas, you are left a bit breathless and confused when it does pause.

In terms of the story it does tell, it is compelling, tense and thrilling. You are in turn disgusted by and rooting for the characters, although you’re never sure which side you should end up on, and the inclusion of the whale haunting their boats was artfully done.

As I mentioned, Jonas Armstrong as the gruff first mate Owen Chase, was particularly brilliant. He switches between quiet strength and loud violence in a blink, inspires fear and respect in equal measure, and works as a believable leader. In fact, all the performances were spot on, creating a strong feeling of documentary. You get the claustrophobia, the fear and the discomfort of the ship and then the whalers (the little boats).

I know next to nothing about whaling, and in honesty don’t plan to find out more. But this is a great adaptation of the story of The Essex, and worth a watch if you’re interested in historical drama.

Rating, Four, Review

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