Top positive review
143 people found this helpful
Better Than the Book
on June 30, 2002
This film is described as an adaptation of Dava Sobel's book of the same name. It is far more than an adaptation, however. Charles Sturridge took a somewhat threadbare tale and turned it into a stirring, dramatic account of the life, tribulations, and ultimate achievement of the 18th century English horologist, John Harrison. It's not that Sobel's book is poorly written. It is in fact entertaining and engrossing as far as it goes. The trouble is that she doesn't go into enough detail and leaves a lot of questions unanswered for the reader. Sturridge takes up her story and fleshes it out, providing the sort of background and character development that the book lacks. Providing the audience with a parallel storyline involving the WWI veteran, Rupert Gould (briefly noted in Sobel's book) also is a stroke of genius on the writer/director's part. The parallels between the lives of the earlier inventor and the shell-shocked vet are striking and poignant.
It does nothing to hurt Sturridge's cause to have assembled such a sterling British cast. Irons and Gambon have great roles to their credit, but they surpass themselves in this production. Sturridge has demonstrated that he can squeeze good acting out of a virtual lemon (Ted Danson in Sturridge's adaptation of "Gulliver's Travels"). He has far more to work with here, and the results are remarkable. Gambon, perhaps best known to American audiences for his lead role in "The Singing Detective," and the recent "Gosford Park," again delivers the goods in this masterful performance. He captures perfectly his character's idiosyncrasies, vicissitudes and ultimate triumph.
Much of the series of course focuses on the "chase" for a solution to the longitude problem that plagued seamen from time immemorial. Methods for determining longitude before the chronometer was invented ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. Heavenly charts were sometimes supplanted by such ludicrous schemes as "the wounded dog method". The following is a transcription of a dialogue delivered by the method`s inventor:
" Now, it is vital to my process, Sir Edmund, that each dog be wounded with the *same knife*, as these three animals have been, under my instructions, some three days ago. Now, the animals are then to be conveyed aboard one of His Majesty's ships, uh, under the supervision of a designated officer, whose task it is to *prevent the wound from healing*. Now the knife, however, would remain here, in London, and at *precisely noon*, each day, is to be plunged into the Powder of Sympathy, which would immediately aggravate the wound, so that each dog, no matter how many thousands of miles away he may be on his particular vessel, would begin to howl... thus."
Clearly, there was a need for a practical solution to this age-old problem, as thousands of sailors were placed in constant peril, owing to the fact that, without a reliable method, they really couldn't get their bearings. This is one area where Sobel does a very good job in her book describing the difficulty in determining longitude, versus the rather simple methods for calculating latitude. That a rather simple man of humble origins could work out the method was disconcerting to several members of the vaunted Board of Longitude, which was composed of members of the ruling class. Harrison's chief detractor and a rival for his claim of the longitude prize (20,000 pounds, equivalent to almost a million dollars by today's standards) was Sir Nevil Maskelyne. Maskelyne comes across in the film and in Sobel's book as a rather arrogant, self-inflated snob, who engages in actual subterfuge of Harrison's claims. Viewers/readers may be interested to note that Maskelyne also appears as a character in Thomas Pynchon's "Mason & Dixon," also in an unflattering light.
In terms of a recommendation, I would have to give Sobel's book between three and four stars. While it is highly readable and engaging, it leaves way too many avenues and dramatic possibilities unexplored. Sturridge fills in all the gaps, and then some. It is not often that I recommend a film over a book, but in this instance, the film is a far richer and satisfying experience.