Directed by Ron Howard
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson
Ron Howard takes a great true story, already the basis for a fantastic fictional story, and turns it into a middling movie. If you’re a sucker for historical epics and nautical yarns – as I generally am, truth to be told – you’ll get something out of In The Heart Of The Sea, but you’re going to have to swallow a lot of nonsense as well.
Framed by an interview between author Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) and one of the survivors (Brendan Gleeson – the film is a bit coy about his exact identity until about two thirds of the way in), the film tells the story of the whaling ship Essex, which was sunk by an enraged sperm whale back in 1820. The survivors, forced into three small, fragile longboats, faced thirst, starvation and exposure, eventually turning to cannibalism out of necessity.
The Essex incident is, of course, one of the inspirations for Melville’s novel Moby Dick, and if you haven’t read that one you need to have a word with yourself. In The Heart Of The Sea, drawing on the non-fiction account of the same title by Nathaniel Philbrick, is in large the story of Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth in full-on chiseled-jaw manly man mode), an experienced whaler from common stock who is looked down upon by the old whaling families of Nantucket, despite his experience and prowess. When we meet Chase he’s expected to be granted his first captaincy, but is instead offered a position aboard the Essex as First Mate under newly minted captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker).
Pollard’s an inexperienced seaman from a good family – the polar opposite of Chase, in other words – so the stage is set for a clash of wills and class consciousness, but while we get a bit of that initially, it peters out when the real crisis hits in the form of a giant, cantankerous whale. In point of fact, a lot of narrative and thematic elements get dropped along the way – Charles Leavitt is the only credited screenwriter, but the finished film is so shapeless and schizophrenic that it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that other hands were in the mix.
The whaling sequences are great, it must be said. Now, in 2015 whaling is a pretty abhorrent activity, but that doesn’t mean it’s not visually exciting and viscerally gratifying, and seeing all the latest film technology brought to bear on depicting a Nantucket Sleigh Ride* is quite a thing. Sure, it’s all green screen work, with our dauntless heroes ploughing through buckets of water tossed by bored grips, but it works. Howard doesn’t seem to be going for a realistic visual aesthetic with In The Heart Of The Sea; it has a kind of painterly vibe. Immediate up close details are meticulous – you can smell the seasoned wood and salt, just about – but as the gaze moves to the background horizon, details fade into a watercolour haze.
Howard also doesn’t shy away from showing us the gruesome realities of the whaling trade, either: we see a sperm whale lashed to the side of the Essex as the crew work to render its blubber into oil. Sharks worry at the carcass while the beast is stripped of flesh, and at one point a cabin boy is forced to crawl into the creature’s hollowed head to sop up the last dregs of spermiceti.
Of course, the film – and the marketing campaign – is built around the attack that sinks the Essex, and it’s here that Howard begins to overstep his mark. looking for meaning and agency where there is none. It’s a full-on nail-biter of a sequence, to be sure, immediate and thrilling and spectacular. However, the film takes an actual incident – angry whale rams ship and then disappears – and imbues it with a silly kind of malevolence. We’re told beforehand that the whaling ground our boys are headed for is protected by a monster whale (that’s the script leaning into the Moby Dick parallels, not anything in the historical record, by the way), and the film treats this quite literally, even having the thing dog the surviving crew members as they attempt a nigh-impossible open boat journey of some 3000 miles back to safety.
Here the wheels begin to come off, slowly but surely. Following the destruction of the Essex, Howard and Leavitt seem unsure what to do with the story. There’s a narrative path to follow, for sure, but not a thematic one, and while the film is able to tell us – with some notable departures – what happened, it’s unable to tell us why in an emotionally satisfying manner. The crew are stuck in the direst of straits, facing almost certain death and horrible, haunting choices, but the film distances itself from these realities. We only really get to understand them through Gleeson’s performance as the old, embittered, alcoholic survivor telling the tale, and given how long it takes us to find out exactly who he is, it doesn’t give us the connection we need.
The film is instead interested in bolting a very modern attitude to whaling onto a story – and, indeed, a character – rooted in the realities and perceptions native to the height of the global whaling industry. The unnamed whale antagonist here** is a righteous avenger of nature scorned, tracking the three boats for countless miles, laying cunning ambushes like one of the preternaturally intelligent sharks from later in the Jaws series. The film even engineers a “moment” between Hemsworth’s Chase and the whale that is simply preposterous, especially given that the beat, in the context of the story comes at the cost of being able to feed the starving survivors for no small amount of time.
What’s particularly sad is that the film leaves so much good material on the table, eliminating fascinating bits of historical truth and changing others for unfathomable reasons. The circumstances of the death of a key character are completely reversed at one point, while the biographical details of others – including Chase himself – are altered for wholly illusive, or at least elusive, purposes. It’s not necessary for a film to cleave wholly to the provable facts of the incidents it’s based on, but to ignore them in order to achieve lesser effect is simply frustrating.
In The Heart Of The Sea is a misfire. When it was first delayed for a December release the rumpus was that it was because the powers that be thought they had a good shot come awards season and wanted to position its debut accordingly. If that’s true, it’s hopelessly optimistic. It’s a middling film at best, shabby around the edges and flabby where it should be lean, with nothing much to say about the events it depicts or the people who lived through them.
*Whalers would chase their prey in small, oared boats and harpoon them. They terrified whales would swim fast and deep to escape, pulling the boat along at terrific speed until they either tired and were finished off by the hunters, or the boat was reduced to kindling. You’d know this if you read Moby Dick. At least take a run at the John Huston film. the screenplay is by Ray Bradbury.
**Given that he’s depicted as being white, the film may be conflating the creature with Mocha Dick as a subtle tip of the hat to another Melville influence.