Film Review: In the Heart of the Sea

Ron Howard’s punishingly tactile film about the disastrous 1820 expedition of the whaling ship Essex that inspired 'Moby-Dick' is an immersive experience but shows little grasp of the human element.
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Even the greatest artists need some raw material to work with. That’s the idea at least behind Ron Howard’s adaptation of Nathaniel Philbrick’s bestselling nonfiction book In the Heart of the Sea, which is structured as a kind of origin story for the Great American Novel: Moby-Dick. It starts in 1850 with a spry young Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) trying to claw a story out of Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), a drunk old salt who has refused for 30 years to talk about his connection with the Essex whaling-boat disaster. Melville’s money and Nickerson’s exasperated wife finally crack open that whiskey-sodden shell. But only after Nickerson fixes Melville with a probing look. “Have you read Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mr. Melville?” He asks. “Great writer.”

It’s one of the few moments of light wit in a screenplay by Charles Leavitt that efficiently structures the action and conflict, but generally in the most thumpingly obvious manner. Flashing back to 1820 Nantucket, the film focuses on Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), the broad-shouldered and flaxen-maned veteran sailor about to embark on another whaling voyage that will leave his pregnant wife alone for two or three years. Although the owners who control his new boat the Essex had promised Chase a captaincy, he is relegated to first mate in order to make room for Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), who is comparatively green but is assumed to be the better choice because he comes from a wealthy old whaling family.

One glance at Chase’s robust way of flinging himself about the ship’s rigging and Pollard’s stiff spine is all anyone will need to know that catastrophe awaits at sea. Melville’s appearance in the functional but not wholly logical framing device—great swaths of Nickerson’s story concern things he never would have witnessed—drops an ocean-sized hint that one big and bad-tempered whale will have some say in events to come. Of course, a onetime sailor like Melville would also have already known that anyway, since the true story of the Essex which he’s plying the cagey Nickerson for was already widely known at the time.

When the Essex sets off, it’s a riot of wind-whipped sails and crashing spray. Howard’s depiction of the experience of early-19th-century sailing is powerfully physical. Every creak of wood and tug of rope and pitch of a wave is delivered with gut-churning immediacy. But the excessive pandering to the 3D cinematography, all those pointlessly skewed and in-your-face shots of flopping whale guts or dogs rooting in the garbage, proves more distracting than it’s worth. Though it must be said that 3D does add something special to the grotesque scene where young Nickerson has to crawl inside a dead whale’s head to harvest the rest of its oil.

The punchy visuals work to much greater effect in the scenes where the Essex is facing down the nightmarish leviathan which, unlike its passive brethren, doesn’t wait to be slaughtered but charges right at the suddenly fragile-looking Essex. That is when Howard pulls back to allow some sense of scale, showing just how delicate this 20-man ship appears on the great wide ocean facing a 100-foot-long beast that shrugs off harpoons as though they were thumbtacks. There are moments in that struggle, both man-versus-nature and man-versus-himself, when the film starts to come alive. It’s easier then to comprehend how Melville might have been so captivated by this kernel of a tale that he built the Great American Novel around it.

But viewers intrigued by Melville’s appearance will look in vain for any hint of his passionately lyrical storytelling, or even hints of his creations like Queequeg or Ahab. Except for the young orphan Nickerson (Tom Holland) and Chase’s old friend Matthew Joy (a wasted Cillian Murphy), the crew is mostly undifferentiated. At first, this allows Howard to highlight how the shared resentment between Chase and Pollard drives the ship from one pride-fueled mistake to another. But it leaves the film ill-equipped to handle the necessary empathy required by the story’s later, harrowing stretches of desperate survival.

Hemsworth, for one, strives mightily to imbue his brawny character with some spark of spirit. But the half-mechanical and half-overwrought screenplay (“We were sailing to the edge of sanity”) leaves him and the rest of the cast little room to maneuver. Howard’s rush to get across the story’s brutalizing physicality jettisons too much historical color and context from Philbrick’s history. This suggests that the the whole project might have been better suited for the roomier expanse of a TV mini-series, maybe one of those multi-night “special events” that the History Channel is always promising. It’s too good a story to turn into a 3D theme-park ride.

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