Hunting for seal pelts on the high seas, hard-bitten sea captain Wolf Larsen (Sebastian Koch) fishes hapless castaway, Humphrey Van Weyden (Steven Campbell Moore) out of the water and onto his boat, The Ghost. The one-time literary critic endures hardship and toil at the hands of the ruthless, sadistic Larsen and his vicious crew, but gradually toughens up into an able seaman. Meanwhile, fleeing an arranged marriage, aspiring writer Maud Brewster (Neve Campbell) seeks passage aboard the Macedonia, captained by Wolf’s brother, the ominously-named Death Larsen (Tim Roth). It transpires both brothers are locked in violent feud, from which only one will survive. When Death Larsen discovers his passenger is the daughter of a rival shipping magnate, Maud realizes her life is in danger and escapes aboard a small boat that brings her into an equally fraught situation between Van Weyden and Wolf.
Jack London, author of Call of the Wild and White Fang, penned this classic seafaring adventure which has been adapted numerous times for both the big and small screens, with the first version in 1913 featuring the writer himself in a small role as a sailor. Surly, sadistic sea captain Wolf Larsen ranks among the most complex literary anti-heroes, notably essayed by Edward G. Robinson in the 1941 version alongside John Garfield as Van Weyden and Ida Lupino as Maud, while the 1993 adaptation gave Charles Bronson one of his best latterday roles opposite Christopher Reeve. This German-Canadian mini-series arrived only one year after another German adaptation starring Thomas Kretschmann, and was supposedly something of a ratings disaster in Germany, although director Mike Barker - whose solid and interesting past filmography includes the Reese Witherspoon thriller Best Laid Plans (1999), historical drama To Kill a King (2003) (which also stars Tim Roth) and the rousing BBC adaptation of Lorna Doone (2000) - was still able to mount a lavish version of Moby Dick as a follow-up for the same production company. So how big a flop could it have been?
German actor Sebastian Koch, best known from the Oscar-winning The Lives of Others (2006), is terrific as Larsen. He depicts the frightening brutality of this brooding bear of a man, but also his sporadic sensitivity as he waxes philosophical and engages Van Weyden in ideological debate. No doubt a writer like London relished casting a literary critic as the soft city gentleman forced, for once, to put in an honest day’s work whilst beaten, robbed and enduring the lowest menial jobs. Whenever Van Weyden complains about unfairness he is told simply to toughen up. “Society is about survival”, maintains Larsen and the plot proves his point by having Van Weyden finally earn some respect beating the ship’s cook in a knife fight. Throughout the story, London poses the question, what is more important: survival or morality? Larsen argues so-called civilised men champion the latter until placed in a situation where the former proves more important. The talky script details Larsen’s extreme Darwinian philosophy intelligently and eloquently, but that doesn’t leave it any easier to stomach.
Barker pulls no punches, neither in his depiction of this human bear pit nor in scenes where seals are shot, clubbed or gutted, which are likely to upset some viewers. The tone is bleak and humourless throughout, although there is some black comedy derived from the sheer volume of injuries Cookie sustains throughout the voyage. Afforded the luxury of two ninety-minute episodes, the pace is too sedate but perks up once the feisty Maud arrives aboard the Ghost. Neve Campbell and Sebastian Koch spark surprisingly well together onscreen. Maud is well scripted, challenging Larsen and bringing a new dimension to his ongoing debate with Van Weyden. After a promising start however, events lapse into a repetitive cycle of escape and recapture until the plot traps Maud and Van Weyden alone aboard the Ghost with a blind, but still dangerous Larsen, before bowing out with a rather limp ending.