At one point in Ron Howard’s compelling drama, In the Heart of the Sea, Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) takes a break from transcribing the tale of the whaling ship Essex (used as the inspiration for the famed novel, Moby Dick) to iterate his fear over his ability to interpret the devastating story, not because he can’t tell it well enough, but because he may not be the right person to write it. It’s a sentiment that digs into the depths behind the meaning of the film: can one rise above their fears to accomplish the impossible, whether that be writing one of the most treasured books ever written, or surviving at sea for three months with hardly any food or water at your disposal. Dare I say the story told in In the Heart of the Sea is better than its product? That’s not to say the film, based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s award-winning non-fiction book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, is better written than the classic novel, but the story in some ways certainly feels more raw than Melville’s interpretation.
Brendan Gleeson gives a stellar performance as Tom Nickerson, the last remaining survivor of the Essex, which was capsized in 1820 by a whale some 1200 nautical miles into the Pacific Ocean. Nickerson’s pain and anguish over the events that transpired during that voyage are stamped all over every nuance in his body language even before we know what really happened after the ship sank. It’s clear the secrets he’s held onto are eating him alive, and as he reluctantly tells his tale to Melville, the anticipation for what may be coming next hurts as much as it inspires.
The tale revolves around two men: Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), a well-to-do son of a family of whaling ship captains who’s been handed everything he’s ever gotten, including this new assignment; and his first-mate, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), a “landsman” who has had to work his butt off his whole life to claw his way up the ladder, only to have his rank of captain be stripped away in favor of the establishment. There’s actually an A Knights Tale vibe running under the current as Chase desperately seeks to change his stars, doing whatever he needs to do to earn honor in a world of controlled nepotism. But unlike Heath Ledger, whose arrogance and confidence are offset perfectly by his fanciful charm, Hemsworth is devoid of innate charisma. He seems to carry a haughty attitude that plays more snobbish than enchanting, turning the majority of his characters into smarmy egotists. It works well-enough for Thor, but if he wants to continue a career outside of Marvel, he needs to find humbleness and vulnerability. Once he does, there’s no doubt he can become a likable, bankable star like, say, Chris Pratt.
I know this because Hemsworth understands how to build chemistry with his fellow actors. He plays perfectly off of Walker, butting heads in a show of both disdain and respect for one another. But the most heartfelt relationship, other than the the brief interaction with his wife (Charlotte Riley), is the one he builds with a young Thomas Nickerson (Tom Holland). Not only does he see himself in the kid, a sailor with aspirations of earning the coveted symbol of an expert whaler, but Thomas comes from humble beginnings, and Chase takes him under his wing as a surrogate father figure, harsh and cruel, yet soft and compassionate. He teaches him what it means to be a whaler, from the highs to the very lows (which includes climbing into the carcass of a whale to get the last drops of “mucus” for oil production), as well as what it takes to be a leader. Rounding out the cast is a boat-load of degenerates from all walks of life, including an underutilized Cillian Murphy, who plays a one-time drunkard who’s banned himself from drinking anything due to an unknown incident from his past (a story I’m very interested in seeing). He does a terrific job with what he’s given, but I would have liked to have seen the character developed much more than Howard allows.
Where Howard shines is in his direction of the action sequences. With the likes of Apollo 13, Backdraft and Willow under his belt, Howard is no stranger to action. The authenticity he’s able to capture, especially in the whaling sequences, keep us thoroughly engaged with taut excitement and tension that engages all of our senses. One of the highlights of the film comes halfway through when the great white whale attacks the Essex, a breathtaking sequence that combines the best aspects of cinematography, visual effects and emotion. What takes place is clearly the motivation behind Ahab, and witnessing that need to destroy this beast, from both the man and the animal’s perspectives, adds just the right amount of depth to help lead us into the latter half of the movie, which takes a very brutal and dark turn.
Having never read In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, I’m not sure how well the movie follows the book, but the pacing in the second half becomes a bit staggered. I like where the story goes here, showing the hardships and the maddening decisions the men of the Essex must endure to survive (and those who decide it best to let go of life), but it never felt as if it went as deep as it could. It wants to show some very unsettling things, but by alluding to them mostly off-screen limits the impact these decisions have on the men, reducing them to “stories” rather than events that changed their lives — and to some extent, their very souls. If Howard had been brave enough to go as far as the men had to go, not only would the impact on Nickerson had been that much more effective in the scenes with Melville, but the effects on the characters themselves (especially Chase and his need to return to his wife and newborn child and how what he does effects them) would have helped raise the second half to match the exhilarating first half, turning the film into a masterpiece truly deserving of Moby Dick‘s legacy.
My Grade: A-
Next week, new movies include Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Sisters and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.