In the Heart of the Sea
Hollywood’s latest seafaring adventure comes from director Ron Howard, who, after spearheading several episodes of the TV docu-series Breakthrough, breaches to the surface in grandiose fashion with In the Heart of the Sea, an equally grandiose and occasionally epic retelling of the story that directly inspired Herman Melville’s Moby Dick - a wholly epic novel that epitomizes the long, grueling combat of man and whale that Howard perfectly captures, albeit with a some drawbacks that only make the film a good, not great, whale of a tale.
The legendary white whale that headlines the film is as big as that opening sentence. Think the maritime equivalent of the Imperial Destroyer; the film's opening shot cleverly uses out-of-frame space to capture just how incomprehensibly massive this creature is. Certainly, a commanding presence in this film.
From there, we are introduced to Melville himself (Ben Whishaw) as he seeks the tale of the old man Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), one of the few survivors of a spectacular shipwreck and 70 days lost at sea. Even with Melville offering cash, Nickerson needs the nudging of his wife (Game of Thrones’ Michelle Fairley) to recount his traumatic experience.
Guided by Nickerson’s narration, we transition to 1820's Massachusetts, where accomplished whaler Owen Chase (Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth) seeks financial support for his wife Peggy (Charlotte Riley) and their child in utero. Demand for whale oil literally runs the world. So Chase, also seeking captainship, sets out to sea on the Essex with brash captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and a young Thomas Nickerson (Tom Holland). Occasionally we revert to the present in Nickerson’s ship-in-a-bottle-laden abode, but our focus remains sternly on the Essex.
This is a journey that achieves unrelenting beauty through its cinematography, as if an homage to the seafaring life. Howard's camera captures the spectacle and grandeur of the ocean, ship, and sea life (at least what rises to the surface), with warm and cool hues of blue, green, and brown creating a memorable and effective color palette. This is a gorgeous film, and cinematography serves as one of its high points.
It’s clear how much the ocean and the white whale dominate this film, with Howard’s camera cataloging their spectacle and destructive potential: the hammer of the whale’s tail, and the vicious squalls that scout the ocean’s surface. While commendable, what is unfortunate is that cinematography and visual motifs overpower a weaker cast of characters.
This isn’t a knock of the actors’ capabilities (far from it – this is a talented array of performers), but that they lack thorough development, making it tenuously difficult to garner much empathy or concern for their well-being or sanity. the brutal destruction of the Essex by the whale, the crew and mates are not memorable, and certainly not quotable. We never really explore the internal struggles of the men; the psyches of wounded, discarded seafarers operating on 70 days without sustenance, whose skin hangs off their bones like wet pants on a clothesline. Especially compared to the grandeur of whale and ocean, as well as the gorgeous cinematography, the character side of things feels sunken. Nobody grows and nobody develops except in the film’s closing minutes – too little, too late by then. You could have swapped different actors and gotten the same results.
Depending on your tolerance for lack of character development, you could enjoy In the Heart of the Sea for several other reasons: it's at least a solid story, with the crew experiencing several obstacles to their survival; it's a beautiful film to watch; it makes for a hell of a theater experience. The film will especially win some hearts devoted to the maritime genre (and I certainly am; Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is one of my favorite films). The film’s heart indeed lies in the sea, but not much of it is lent to our seafarers. It’s certainly a gorgeously shot film, and at times riveting and disorienting, as if one is lost at sea themselves. Whether or not it is ultimately fulfilling is in the eye of the beholder.
Written by Charles Leavitt (screenplay) and Nathaniel Philbrick (book).
Directed by Ron Howard.
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, and Cillian Murphy.