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The Whale

Sun Dec 22, 9-10.30pm, BBC1

It’s 1819 in Nantucket and young orphan farmboy Tom Nickerson (Charles Furness) dreams of adventure on the high seas. Following in his grandfather’s footsteps, he signs up as a cabin boy on The Essex, a whaling ship filled with the usual suspects: pulled-up-by-his-own-bootstraps first mate Owen Chase (Jonas Armstrong), kindly but inexperienced captain George Pollard (Adam Rayner), and salt-of-the-earth mates Peterson and Bond. It’s not long before power struggles between captain and first mate lead to the tragedy on which this drama is based – the destruction of the ship after a supposed vengeful attack by a whale.

If that sounds familiar to fans of ‘Moby-Dick’, it’s because Melville was supposedly inspired by this real-life tale, one filled with the best and worst of humanity. The pace is slow and the action unfolds thoughtfully, allowing dialogue and characterisation to develop while creating space to counteract the claustrophobia of the setting. Once on dry land, the slow pace ramps up the sense of menace and impending doom, bringing the strong, solid performances to the fore. Those hoping for a swashbuckling romp will be disappointed but, as an arresting real-life story of humans battling a perceived monstrous elemental foe (and their own demons), ‘The Whale’ is a winner.