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July 2011

Sea Wolf

cast: Sebastian Koch, Stephen Campbell Moore, Neve Campbell, Tim Roth, and Andrew Jackson

director: Mike Barker

178 minutes (15) 2009
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Showbox DVD Region 2

RATING: 8/10
review by Jim Steel

Sea Wolf

When a film begins with a disclaimer that no animals were hurt during the making of it, you are entitled to wonder what sort of thing you are approaching. Conversely, if you are a fan of Jack London, then this will probably reassure you since there has always a temptation for studios to bowdlerise London's primal tales of savagery. However, this three-hour epic actually heads in the other direction and increases the cruelty at the cost of believability; adding to the number of coincidences that were already present in the novel does strain one's credulity somewhat. That corner of the Pacific may be empty, but it is still bloody huge. Still, as they say, stranger things happen at sea.

Humphrey van Weyden (Stephen Campbell Moore) is a San Francisco literary critic. It is important that he is not a conventional author; a more practical writer might have been tempted to regard the adventure with a more distanced objectivity. Van Weyden is as far as can be imagined from the common man when he falls overboard a ferry and is picked up, nearly drowned, by the crew of the Ghost, a sailing sealer heading off on a hunting expedition. The first thing he sees is the captain, Wolf Larsen (Sebastian Koch) kicking lumps out of what everyone presumes to be a drunk crewman. It turns out that the crewman is already dead, so Larsen promotes the cabin boy and tells van Weyden that he is now working as a kitchen assistant to Cookie, a wretched, bird-like creature played by Julian Richings (for a totally different interpretation of the same character, check out the BBC radio drama where he is played by Ian Dury).

Hump, as he is derisorily nick-named, soon finds that he is bottom of the heap and they will not be going out of their way to drop him off. He is there for the duration. The crew are a mixed bag but we know this for we saw them being recruited at the start and, since Larsen's reputation for brutality preceded him, we are aware that many are only there through desperation. We also see Maud Brewster (Neve Campbell) running away to sea at the same time. She is running from an arranged marriage and signs on, under an assumed name, as a passenger on one of her father's ships, the Macedonia. The Macedonia is a steam-sealer that just happens to be captained by Wolf's crippled brother, Death; real name Todd, of course, and played to perfection by Tim Roth. When asked if his brother was always a bastard, Death replies with a smile, "Well - between us, he was the sensitive one."

Moby Dick was famously about one man's rage against God but there is no God in Sea Wolf. Wolf, a man of almost superhuman strength is, as Nietzsche would have it, beyond good and evil. He is answerable only to his own appetites and emotions. His autodidactic tendencies also demonstrate a keen intelligence that is only matched, amongst his crew, by Hump. In Hump, he sees a useful toy. Koch is absolutely perfect in a role that has previously been played by, amongst others, Edward G. Robertson and Charles Bronson. Charismatic and good looking, he is great company much of the time. Hump also moves up the ranks of the crew, eventually becoming, as first mate, Mr van Weyden. This is partially because there are a number of fatalities and it becomes apparent that, even for one of Wolf's voyages, this journey is becoming something out of the ordinary.

Meanwhile, on board the Macedonia, Death discovers who Maud is and he decides to have her murdered. If Wolf is amoral then Death is distilled evil. His ship, named after a landlocked country, is rarely seen from the deck and most of the onboard interaction takes place inside it. It is in complete contrast to the Ghost where the crew are constantly flitting around the deck. This is a film that is heavy with metaphor.

A German and Canadian television co-production, this TV mini-series was split into two parts for broadcast; a split that is reproduced in the DVD release. Maud is cast adrift from the Macedonia at the end of part one and she is picked up by the Ghost at the start of part two. (In the novel, she merely survives a sunken steamer bound for Yokohama, but Barker feels the need for people to go back and forth between the two brothers to rack up the tension.) Like Hump, she arrives in time to witness an act of brutality from Wolf. This is a man who offers no false illusions and his power comes from his ability to control people despite them knowing him for what he is. Maud happens to be a poet and knew Hump in San Francisco. They didn't get on. Hump, however, has become a sailor since then, has bought into the working-class mystic, and feels that he has remade himself. Wolf, of course, delights in crushing Hump's new self-image. Hump is not alone; the rest of the crew are coming apart as well. However, the looming clash with Death comes to dominate part two.

Sea Wolf is not perfect; the Larson brothers' Freudian hatred of their father is over-egged and, while the crew of the Ghost are wonderfully nuanced, those on the Macedonia are at best ciphers and at worst - Death's steward, for example - floundering and in need of direction. The climax feels weak as well since it leans on Hump and Maud who are not the most gripping of screen presences, but the fault for that can at least be laid at the feet of London. However, the journey towards that ending is intense and Koch is quite simply hypnotic.

The only extra included with this release is the trailer where, with its banal Hollywood voiceover, it is called The Seawolf. Please don't watch the trailer.

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