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A sort of maritime Donner Party, In the Heart of the Sea is a rugged but underwhelming true-life drama of a cursed 19th century whaling voyage. The hook here is that the journey of the Essex from Nantucket to the South Pacific in 1820 helped inspire Herman Melville to write Moby-Dick thirty years later; this is, however, only partially the case and hardly seems enough upon which to base a tragic tale driven partly by hubris and insecurity but mostly by very bad luck. Ron Howard’s film of Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2000 National Book Award for Nonfiction winner holds the interest but never generates white caps of excitement, making this look like a holiday season also-ran for Warner Bros.
In terms of recent cinema, there are shades of Unbroken here, as a significant stretch of the yarn involves men bobbing about in the Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles from anywhere, and forced to extreme measures to stay alive. If there is one epic survival tale that will prevail during this Christmas season, it will likely be The Revenant rather than this one, which could end up performing significantly better overseas than domestically.
The adaptation by Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond) is a solid piece of traditional carpentry that would have passed muster at the Hollywood studios back in the late ’30s or early ’40s, when this sort of high seas adventure based on famous books was most in vogue. The framing device of an author — in this case the young Melville (Ben Whishaw) — interviewing, in 1850, the last surviving member of the ship’s crew, Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), in order to flash back to the sorrowful events, is the definition of old-school. That impression is only somewhat undercut by Howard’s second consecutive collaboration with rough-and-ready cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, who does his muscular best to evoke the spectacle of whaling’s heyday in a comprehensive manner.
What Melville is after is the full, lurid and true story of what happened to the hapless sailors who famously had their ship capsized by a white whale the size of which no one had ever seen. Like his late crewmates, Nickerson has never spoken of what transpired thereafter, and it takes a significant amount of cash for the nearly destitute older man to open up. But he does, which is wherein lies the tale.
In 1820, Nantucket was considered the whaling capital of the world; in some striking CGI vistas fronted by countless ships, the town looks a lot larger than it does now. The men would sail off for a year or more and often meet new offspring for the first time upon their return. That’s the future that may be in store for headstrong seaman Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), who thinks he now deserves to captain the refurbished Essex, but must settle for another stint as first mate in deference to the owner’s son George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), a young greenhorn being placed in command.
When local sea behemoths prove elusive, the undersized Essex moves on into the South Atlantic, where the cry of “Blow!” is finally heard and a whale is hauled in and processed. In one scene, young Nickerson (Tom Holland), as the smallest one on board, is ordered to descend into the malodorous innards of the beast to extract its most precious contents. For audiences unfamiliar with the past, the economic primacy of whale oil, and its importance in illuminating long dark nights, is spelled out.
A measure of personal drama is sustained via the resentment of the ultra-capable working class Chase for the silver-spooned Pollard, who can’t really pretend he knows what he’s doing and at the first sign of adversity wants to return to port rather than toughing it out. But with whale sightings at a minimum, the men proceed around Cape Horn and into the Pacific in their quest to stockpile 2,000 pounds of oil. During a stop in Ecuador, they hear tall tales of a “demon” whale that’s sent at least one ship to its doom, as well as of an abundance of whales a thousand leagues west. So after more than a year at sea, they set off on a voyage to what Nickerson calls “the edge of sanity.”
Sure enough, they find not just plenty of whales, but The Big One they’ve been hearing about, which, in a welcoming gesture, slaps down its giant fluke and capsizes one of the launches. It’s a monster, alright, a splotchy dark gray-and-white beast that’s as long as Essex and makes a sound like Godzilla. And the way it peers at the men and their boat, it would look to have something special in store for them.
And indeed it does. After flapping its whale tail down a bit more, the Essex capsizes and poor Captain Pollard has no choice but to abandon ship, which forces the survivors onto the three remaining launches some 3,000 miles from Easter Island, the nearest known land. With precious little to eat or drink, no sails or equipment and nothing to protect them from the elements, the men just drift, and after a month find a largely barren island, where a couple of them elect to remain. For the rest, one more month adrift becomes yet another and, with it, inevitable death and, horror of horrors, cannibalism under duress. And through it all, the giant whale still has them in its sights.
In the end, this isn’t anything near the tale that Melville told; it’s merely a story of great personal misfortune and tragedy, rather than one that trades in such lofty matters as the defiance of God, personal will and civilization versus the natural elements, the line between obsession and madness, revenge, the existential meaning of the sea and so many other matters (not to mention its rich cast of characters and status as the most complete account of the mechanics of whaling ever written for mass consumption). By comparison, In the Heart of the Sea comes off more like a long anecdote.
The actors are attractive but mostly one-note: Hemsworth is the brawny mate with whom you’d confidently entrust your life, Walker (who here bears an uncanny resemblance to a younger Colin Firth) a boy uninspiringly trying to fill a man’s shoes, Cillian Murphy the ever-reliable second mate and Holland the game youngster destined to send the story down through the ages. Whishaw’s Melville comes off as quite pushy and hard-edged in his insistence that grumpy old Nickerson open up to him; charm seems absent from his arsenal of personal attributes.
There’s a lot of CGI here, but the muted color schemes and crafty professionalism all around make the assorted elements mesh well enough.
Production: Cott Productions, Enelmar Productions, Roth Films, Spring Creek, Imagine Entertainment
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw, Michelle Fairley, Tom Holland, Paul Anderson, Frank Dillane, Joseph Mawle, Edward Ashley, Sam Keeley, Osy Ikhile, Gary Beadle, Jamie Sives, Morgan Chetcuti, Charlotte Riley, Nicholas Jones, Donald Sumpter, Richard Bremmer, Jordi Molla
Director: Ron Howard
Screenwriter: Charles Leavitt, story by Charles Leavitt, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, based on the book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick
Producers: Paula Weinstein, Joe Roth, Will Ward, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard
Executive producers: Bruce Berman, Steven Mnuchin, Sarah Bradshaw, Palak Patel, Erica Huggins, David Bergstein
Director of photography: Anthony Dod Mantle
Production designer: Mark Tildesley
Costume designer: Julian Day
Editors: Mike Hill, Dan Hanley
Music: Roque Banos
Visual effects supervisor: Jody Johnson
Casting: Nina Gold
PG-13 rating, 121 minutes
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