Longitude (2000)

Reviewer: Charity Bishop


Few, if any of us, could calculate the longitude on board ship with only the use of a pocket watch. But what if you never had a watch to begin with? You would be literally in the same boat as His Majesty's navy during the early Georgian era. During this temperamental time in history, many ships ran aground hundreds of miles off course because their captains were unable to calculate the latitude and longitude of the ship, thus placing the crew in danger. After several dozen ships foundered, Queen Anne put into work an act that would reward the man capable of coming up with a logical, precise means of ending the problem the sum of several thousand pounds. This is the plot of Longitude... or at least part of it, since parallel to the original storyline runs the true-life story of the man who restored the famed clocks to their original candor several hundred years after their creation.


John Harrison (Michael Gambon), a carpenter by trade, took up the challenge as the only man in England to have a clock only a fraction of a second beyond time. With his son, ten year old William, he attempts to solve the longitude problem by creating a clock not upset by the tossing of a ship or extreme hot and cold conditions. His obsession leads to troubles amidst the Longitude Board, for they claim the instrument, while precise, is far too cumbersome to survive on board ship. In the meantime dozens of other would-be inventors are offering solutions that range from the improbable to the absurd. Everything from astrological charts to wounded dogs, floating dock points, and fireworks. As the father and son (Ian hart) work together, time passes... and the competition grows greater. 


As we follow their lives we also intervene in the story of John Gould (Jeremy Irons), a shell-shocked veteran of the first World War. After having a mental breakdown he seeks solace with the repairing of Harrison's clocks, which have been sadly stored and much-abused in the basement of the London museum. While the mentally unstable man's obsession grows with Harrison's precise and often fantastic creations, his marriage suffers. In two very different worlds, hundreds of years apart, we watch the same driving force of passion wreck havoc on both the creator and the mentor. Longitude is a fascinating watch full of colorful characters and painful revelations about human nature. We are introduced to the madness of creation, the driving force that pushes both men to pursue their passion at great cost to themselves. It's a brilliant piece of work overall; only rarely does the four hours seem to lag. The cast turns in beautiful performances. Jeremy Irons is particularly effective as the madman Gould.


Michael Gambon, known for his work in period films, is a captivating John Harrison. Yet it is the younger actors who truly shine. Samuel West becomes the troublesome Maskelyne with ease. Ian Hart is particularly stirring as an older William Harrison. Nicholas Rowe, one of my personal favorite British actors, has a cameo as King George III -- brilliant, eccentric, family-conscious, and utterly likable. While under-used, he's ever comical and diverting. Content-wise the film presents only a few minor flaws. There is little violence and language is mainly the use of British profanities (bloody, hell, and d-mn). A man is shown being flogged on board ship; some of the blood sprays onto William's face. Doctors in a mental hospital struggle to subdue a patient. A dead body is seen hanging from the ship's mast in the opening credits. There are two suggestive elements I should mention, both of which are somewhat disconcerting but not overly graphic. Both also appear in the final episode. Gould has become estranged from his wife, and while it's never made clear whether they're divorced or merely separated, it's implied he sleeps with one of the nurses at the mental hospital. The scene is brief and not even graphic... just the sight of them curled up together. She later asks him to move in with her and he accepts.


The second is a game of strip-poker on which William intrudes. A lord of Parliament is playing with a table full of young ladies, all of them apparently in various stages of undress. We briefly see upper side nudity on their part but explicit shots are blocked. A fuzzy image of a dead body's nude breast is shown on an operating table. I found the dialogue occasionally  confusing. If you're not a student of longitude you may find yourself treading water in an attempt to keep up logically. But for the most part it's a diverting historical film with many touching aspects.