Film: Sea Wolf ***
Release date: Out Now
Running time: 178mins
Director: Mike Barker
Starring: Sebastian Koch, Stephen Campbell Moore, Neve Campbell, Tim Roth
Reviewer: Daryl Wing
Inspired by the Jack London novel, Sea Wolf has already been adapted for the screen twelve times, starring such prestigious names as John Garfield, Barry Sullivan, Christopher Reeve and, lest we forget, Charles Bronson. With Mike Barker (Best Laid Plans, Butterfly on a Wheel) at the helm and an impressive cast including Tim Roth and Neve Campbell, will this two-part mini-series prove to be lucky at the thirteenth attempt?
Wolf Larsen (Sebastian Koch), the ruthless Captain of the notorious seal hunting vessel Sea Wolf, takes onboard pompous castaway Humphrey Van Wyden (Stephen Campbell Moore), a literary critic who hasn’t done a hard day’s work in his life.
Instead of abandoning him at the next harbour, Wolf puts him to work, ruling over him with an intractable iron fist. To Wolf's surprise, the graft transforms Van Wyden into a hardened adversary – almost every bit as formidable as Wolf himself.
But the arrival of Wolf’s brother and arch-rival, Death (Tim Roth), and the rescue of another castaway, Maud (Neve Campbell), the beautiful daughter of a rival ship owner, creates friction aplenty - our male adversaries giving the seals a day off to fight over love, life, and pretty much everything else…
Though this swashbuckling epic seldom strays from entertaining, its impressive pacing diverting enough to ensure there’s no time to ponder a lack of backstory or characterization, Sea Wolf struggles to stay afloat because apart from Van Wyden and Maud (a sweetly innocent Neve Campbell), the rest of the cast are about as likeable as fish fingers. Stephen Campbell Moore continues his impressive rise by trying his best as our main protagonist, but not even Rick Stein could cook up enough empathy for a man who can’t even defend his career choice convincingly, let alone a damsel in distress.
Similar to The Call of the Wild, Jack London’s previous bestseller, The Sea Wolf tells the story of a soft, well-educated protagonist, from a wealthy background, forced to toughen up by exposure to cruelty and brutality. The screenplay by Nigel Williams (with over thirty years’ experience writing for television) differs from the original text, beginning with an ‘accident’ that sees Van Wyden set adrift at sea. In the novel the ferry he is travelling on collides with another ship and sinks – a case of keeping the budget in check after blowing most of it on high profile actors.
Whereas Van Wyden’s transformation from weakling to warrior is slightly unconvincing (his personality swims with and then against the tide so often it’s nauseating), Wolf Larsen’s brutal and cynical persona barely changes throughout the three hours on offer here, equally frustrating despite attempts to convince us he’s actually highly intelligent and intellectual. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt him to read some Ben Elton every once in a while. Instead, he displays characteristics of a sociopath as he murders and abuses people without hesitation, seeing no value in life. His only weakness is his brother Death (an even grumpier Tim Roth), because his brother is simple minded, a cripple, and so is able to enjoy life unburdened.
One of the key events in both the film and the book is an attempted mutiny against Wolf Larsen by several members of the crew. Those that suffered mostly in the opening half of the film have enough reasons to justify such an attack, and other members of the ship’s compliments are willing to put the final boot in, but without allowing any of the characters a backstory of any kind, all you’ll really be left wondering is why on earth they decided to board the ship in the first place.
Worse still, Larsen, demonstrating his inhuman endurance, strength, and conviction by squashing potatoes in his bare hands (honestly), manages to escape relatively unharmed, and the next day the crew are back doing what they do best – oddly obeying Larsen’s bullying orders as if nothing ever happened, hindering a film that belies its lengthy running time with some decent swashbuckling and impressive visual effects.
The second part of the tale is easily the better of the two, when Larsen’s ship, the Ghost, picks up another castaway (the novel has them pick up more than the lovely Campbell), hinting at a past relationship between herself and Van Wyden. Straying from the original text once again, their past is rarely touched upon, the relationship never openly discussed and barely hinted at, which annoys, especially as Wolf Larsen also feels something for her (not that we need any more conflict).
There are few surprises or bursts of originality here, especially when Van Wyden and Maud decide they can repair the ship after becoming stranded on an island, whilst Larsen, suffering from yet another headache, is rendered blind, yet still manages to hunt them down. His tedious headaches further cripple the plot, with no hint of an explanation as to what they may be caused by – instead we’re just left to swallow the feeble plot device, one that will ultimately lead to the unsatisfying finale. There is, however, a strong desire to entertain, and it does manage to do so, despite every character somehow managing to grumble and groan throughout.
The action is plentiful, the setting is opulent and the whole journey moves at an old-fashioned, ship-steady pace aided by a satisfying score. Yet Sea Wolf is ransacked by miserable characters that lack empathy and two pantomime villains that eventually lack menace.