Extraordinary voyage for great Tom

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The fact that it is tempting to imagine that a film called Captain Phillips (Cert 12A) might chronicle the loves and losses of Princess Anne is an indication that its real subject is not so well known to audiences on this side of the Atlantic.

It tells of of the 2009 hijacking of the container ship Maersk Alabama off the coast of Somalia, the first US ship to be seized by pirates in 200 years, and how the captain was held for ransom on a lifeboat for five days until the Navy SEALs came to the rescue.

It so easily could have been a tale of American gung-ho action but the director is British director Paul Greengrass who gives a multi-layered dimension to the story.

Employing the distinctive hand-held camera style of United 93 and Bloody Sunday, it is both a tense thriller and a complex portrayal of the myriad effects of globalisation.

The drama starts when Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) spots an ominous bleep on the radar indicating a couple of small boats speeding in their direction. He then launches a well-planned emergency procedure that puts the unarmed ship into lockdown while its crew hide. The heavily armed pirates led by Muse (Barkhad Abdi) board the vessel, take Phillips hostage, and flee in a lifeboat

In no way attempting to excuse what the pirates do, Greengrass shows that Muse (the excellent non-professional actor Abdi) is controlled by warlords.

He focuses on the relationship between the two adversaries without succumbing to the temptation to have them bond in some way.

They merely recognise that they both have jobs to do. Explaining why he is not prepared to compromise his demand for millions of dollars, Muse says: “I have bosses,” which elicits the response from Philllips: “We all have bosses.”

This is one of Hanks’ greatest performances in the way Phillips quietly goes through hell culminating in an extraordinary scene of post-traumatic stress.

Ian Soutar