This is Ahab's film. William Hurt dominates every scene he appears in, and he appears in most of them. I'm convinced he's pulling out all the stops, aiming for an Emmy. I'm not sure how else to explain the hammy overacting, the grizzly beard, the cheesy dialogue delivered in a carefully cultivated "old salt" accent (ie. "aargh!" "aye!"). Hurt thinks he's playing Hamlet, and he wants Ahab's descent into madness to be central to the story.
Ahab is typically dark, cursed, scarred, traumatised, intimidating and vengeful. Hurt's Ahab is just plain crazy. He jokes around with his men, delivers many of his most serious lines while grinning through his beard and squinting his eyes. On board the Pequod, he's like everybody's affectionate but slightly volatile Grandpa, not averse to a hug or a bit of laugh over a stein of grog. He says too much, and much of it is hard to understand, delivered in a sing-song cadence with emphasis in unusual places. Oscillating between booming vocal projection of Shakespearean proportions and just plain talking to himself, and introspective mumbling in which he appears to be talking to himself, Hurt seems to be performing for his own benefit rather than for an audience. This is an attempt to indicate Ahab's madness in a way nobody else has done before, but it alienates the audience as well as his fellow actors, and it's just not good acting. He's a piratey caricature whose attempts at pathos are unpersuasive. I prefer Gregory Peck's intense, brooding Ahab. A good Ahab should indicate more than he actually says, a dark exterior concealing untold depths of turmoil and mystery - like the sea! Argh!
Ethan Hawke is a solid Starbuck, and a very human foil to Hurt's gruff, squinty captain. He's emotional, penetrative, and seriously worried about the fate of the ship. More than anyone else he embodies the atmosphere of impending doom that plagues the voyage, and his sense of mortality is a visibly heavy burden. When Starbuck says that what he wants most from the journey is "to see Nantucket again", you believe him. He's a homesick sailor. At that point, everything's beginning to go awry and we'd all like to see the Pequod turn around and go home. Starbuck's finest hour comes at the very end - I won't give anything away, but it's profoundly moving. Hawke's performance salvaged something of an otherwise perfunctory adaptation.
Moby himself is, of course, CGI. In short, like so many massive movie monsters, he doesn't look real. It's not bad CGI, but it's difficult to convey the sublime weightiness of such a vast, living creature with special effects. Moreover, Moby is no ordinary animal - he's an icon, with a personality and a sense of mischief. At it's heart, the story of a whale cheating a whaler is almost comic, with the feel of a fable. I wonder if an animation might capture the spirit of the character (Moby is a character!) more than live action film with CGI. For the most part, they do a pretty decent job of Moby, except for a totally unnecessary scene at the very end which is embarrassingly rudimentary and looks like a scene from a video game.
In summary, as a production it could be worse, but it didn't add anything to my experience of the story. I couldn't help feeling some of the actors involved (Donald Sutherland, Gillian Anderson, William Hurt) were simply trying to add another period piece to their CV's. They fulfilled the brief, but their performances were not memorable. Honourable mentions go to Eddie Marsan, who was an excellent Stubbs, and Billy Boyd who makes an impressive cameo as deranged prophet Elijah. There were some saving graces, but I'm yet to see an adaptation of Moby Dick that captures the spirit of the book. As nautical tales go, Peter Weir's Master and Commander gives a more vivid impression of life at sea.
This canonical story with the feel of a great myth is told and retold, so perhaps there is yet hope for a cinematic adaptation that does the book justice. No doubt someone will take another stab at Moby Dick in the not-too-distant future; pun absolutely intended.