Ron Howard’s (Rush, A Beautiful Mind) latest film tells of an extraordinary story that became the inspiration for Herman Melville’s literary classic Moby Dick. This such story is based on Nathan Philbrick’s 2000 non-fiction book of the same name about the tragedy of whaling vessel ‘The Essex’ and both the on-board tensions that sparked between Captain and First Mate on the ill-fated 1820 voyage, and their battle with a mythical monster of the Ocean; an enormous white whale. Though it didn’t resonate with me as much as expected on an emotional level, and a slow-paced back end saps the effect of some of the more shocking revelations, In the Heart of the Sea is thrilling escapist cinema that almost lives up to its grand epic-cinema ambitions.
The story is recapped through a series of flashbacks as Melville (Ben Whishaw) comes to visit the last remaining survivor of the Essex, former cabin boy Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), who has kept the truth of what happened on the voyage a secret all of his life. Melville had learned of the claims about the whale, and he is desperate to learn the full story for what he hopes he can turn into the great novel of his insubstantial career to date.
We are introduced to the story’s central protagonist, First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), and learn of the hostile relationship that developed between he and the Essex’s inexperienced by Class-elite Captain, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker). Setting out on a voyage (to the ends of the Earth if required) to source oil from the blubber of whales, Pollard’s stiff authority is undermined by the headstrong and respected Chase, and their conflict results in them being unnecessarily trapped within a fierce storm. Empty-barreled and struggling the pair agree to keep going, learning of an uncharted part of the Atlantic where the whales have fled their hunters and live in abundance. It is there that the film’s true rivalry begins; as the Essex is attacked by a mammoth Bull Sperm Whale, and the survivors are forced to endure terrible hardships in order to make it back alive.
In the Heart of the Sea is an epic seafaring adventure about the powerlessness of mere men against the might of the natural world; storms, the sun baked open ocean (which is essentially a desert), and this monster beset on their destruction. However, it is less a monster movie than a depiction of human resilience when faced with pending mortality. The first half is significantly more exciting – a breathtaking depiction of the Essex in action and the jaw-dropping initial confrontation with their foe – than the 90-days-at-sea survival story that forms the backbone of the story.
I was constantly in awe of the film on a technical level, and impressed by how well Ron Howard staged the energy on board the vessel, as well as the splendid visual representation of the whales. Genius DP Anthony Dod Mantle (Rush, 127 Hours) uses a yellow-blue colour palette to beautifully capture the effect of the sun on the water, but also does a remarkable job of placing us on the Essex and causing a sweaty-palm anxiety akin to the terror experienced by these men. His use of aggressive, odd-angled close-ups on faces and distinctive objects, and stunning underwater captures amounted to some of the highlights.
But, there was this unexpected absence of emotion, when I should have been devastated by what they went through and had to resort to. I found a similar problem with Rush – another exhilarating, action-packed story, but I didn’t connect emotionally with the characters. Perhaps it was the fact that among the cast only Hemsworth, and to a lesser degree Cillian Murphy, are given characters that have much complexity. Also, it is difficult to care too much for these greedy men who yelp with glee when they enter the whale haven and smell blood. It was their livelihood after all; an irreplaceable resource in an era just before the land oil-boom. Walker is weak as the stubborn, stone-faced ‘antagonist’, while Frank Dillane is just there to stir up trouble whenever necessary. But it is Hemsworth’s show and he carries the film. His physicality as a seaman and fearlessness as a leader is never questioned, even if his accent does get wobbly at times.
By Andrew Buckle
Director: Ron Howard
Writer(s): Charles Leavitt (Screenplay), Nathaniel Philbrick (Book, “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex”)
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland, Ben Wishaw, Brendan Gleeson, Benjamin Walker
Runtime: 121 minutes
Release date(s): Australia: December 3, 2015