*Note- I’ve changed to a five point rating system, it seems more relevant & useful*
‘In The Heart of The Sea’ is a film, directed by Ron Howard, that follows the real life tragedy of the whaling ship, The Essex out of Nantucket, Massachusetts in the early 1820’s. Named after the nonfiction book upon which the story is based, written by Nathaniel Philbrick, ‘In The Heart of The Sea’ is the story of two men and their distinct differences in leadership while on the vessel; first mate Owen Chase, Chris Hemsworth, & Benjamin Walker as Captain George Pollard. Hemsworth’s Chase is the man’s man of the picture, a seasoned blue collar Whaler that is placed on the Essex at the whim of the bureaucrats as a first mate instead of the role of Captain as he was promised. That position ends up being filled by George Pollard, a snobbish, well-to-do blue blood with familial connections. And so the stage is set out as the two characters clash for authority and respect while out at voyage.
If the marketing of this film hadn’t informed you heavily enough the framing device utilized in the film will beat you over the head with the information that Herman Melville was obsessed by this story and that it’s details are what inspired the American literary classic ‘Moby Dick‘. We know this because the film opens thirty years after the events of the Essex as we follow a hopeful young author as he tracks down a lead to a story that has consumed him. Young Melville, portrayed here by Ben Whishaw, finds the last surviving member, Tom Nickerson, of the Essex and after much prodding the gentlemen begins to tell us his part in the tale. Young Nickerson, while portrayed adequately by Tom Holland, seemingly only exists to relay the story to our aspiring author years later within the context of the story, even though Owen Chase and Tom Nickerson are based on real life accounts of the first mate and cabin boy that truly survived the event almost two centuries ago. If the film had only used this device, of dialogue between an older Nickerson, portrayed by Brendan Gleeson, and Melville discussing these events only at the opening and close of the film it would have worked better but the film curiously plods back to get reactions of said sequences or actions, from Melville as he hears it. This is all fine and well in some regards but I really felt as though this disrupted the film’s flow.
Where the film shines is in it’s embrace of the themes of man vs man and man vs nature throughout the runtime. These moments capture what I feel the film was attempting to get more of, but failed slightly in that regard. The dialogue and tension between Pollard and Chase make otherwise longfelt sequences feel breezier. Although the film is long, I never truly felt as if the pace were particularly lacking, although admittedly I adore seafaring tales, so this might have been lost on me. Speaking of these two main characters, they represent more of the problems with the film as time goes on though. Weaknesses that lie in the characters as they are written, not necessarily the performances. There was never enough done to make us feel particularly attached to any of the characters, and Pollard constantly makes poor, bullish, decisions that make his squaring off with the first mate less of an even footed rivalry and more of a one sided mutiny brewing as nobody liked, and isn’t meant to, the captain from the moment he was introduced to us onscreen.
When the whales finally do show up, they are menacing, or at least their actions show us that they are menacing, but we never get anything more compelling out of what they do, or represent onscreen other than the “vengance for my dead brethren” through-line. There are moments when Chase looks out upon the sea with whale blood speckling his face, almost as if he is pondering whether or not killing these animals was the right thing to do, even though his entire way of life depends on this savagery. The CGI whales do look good, but in all fairness they lack any true weight to the times they are onscreen, they are present and the white whale itself does mess their boat up royally, however there could have been other creative choices that either made the vengeful whale more intimidating, or more of a constant threat instead of the essentially one-and-done that we get when the action does go down. However there is a beautiful moment when first mate Chase seemingly realizes that they are no longer the hunters, but the hunted.
The cinematography, in my opinion, is admirably done but is not without its faults. It captures the tactile presence of the world these characters inhabit, as the boat fills with water and several characters are grabbing provisions we’ll get a close up on a wooden shelf with a whale drawing carved into the side. The boat truly feels lived in by this time. There are other moments when Howard makes this creative choice and I personally couldn’t agree more, to me it feels as though you are giving a real sense of implied time in a given place that resonates with those characters, as a closer look upon a worn in groove or another view of ropes sliding through pulleys that haul the fabric sail aloft you might be beckoned to think of the time spent out on that one boat for so long, and what it might do to a man. However, this creates a problem in that now there is almost more emotional investment in the set than the characters that inhabit it! And while I might not be all too bothered by the tight framing and almost claustrophobic camera movements at times, there can be an argument made for Howard missing out on the scope of the sea that surrounds them by doing so. Especially when you compare to the sequences of the whales that zoom way out and above the ship to give an, albeit needed, sense of scale. It simply feels disjointed when juxtaposed as they are.
Overall the film is thrilling at times and introduces us to similar themes that are far more excellently explored within ‘Moby Dick’, but the sea-faring thriller could just never live up to the bar set by the work that it inspired. If you want a movie to watch and kill some time before the new Star Wars comes out, this would be a fine, but certainly not perfect, addition.
Final Score: 3.5/5