The story of the ocean is a vast one, full of monsters, heroes and gods. For millennia storytellers have drawn upon the behemoth resources available, and adventurers – real and imagined – have taken to the sea to test their resolve. Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea is another tale to add to the athenaeum of sea yarns. It draws upon the real life events of an 1820 whaling crew attacked by a sperm whale and cast adrift. It’s a story so wild and captivating it was the inspiration behind Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
The film introduces Herman Melville, played by the talented Ben Whishaw, seeking an audience before Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson). Implored for his recount of the 1820 events, Thomas reluctantly opens his Pandora’s Box and begins the story. In Nantucket, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) finds himself wedged out of captaining a whaling expedition for sheer nepotistic reasons, with blue-blooded George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) chosen instead. Roped into becoming Captain Pollard’s first mate, Owen leaves port promising his wife a safe return. Counted among the crew are Chase’s seasoned companion Matthew (Cillian Murphy) and young Thomas Nickerson himself, played now by Tom Holland.
Tension is immediate between the everyman Chase and pig-headed Pollard. Foolish decisions are made by Pollard who lashes out with hurt pride. After learning of a bountiful pod of sperm whales in the West, the crew head into the deep Pacific. With many gritty tense moments and a few successes, the ship is ultimately destroyed when a massive bull strikes a horrible vengeance against the crew. By a powerful blow and an oil-sparked fire the crew are forced to abandon ship into a hastily makeshift sail/row boats. This sequence is filmed wonderfully by Howard who manages to find interesting locations for the camera. The shots into the enraged eye of the leviathan underwater are marvelous. After escaping mostly unharmed the crew begin a long and terrible drift for ninety days.
It is an incredible story Howard has at his disposal and the shooting of it is wonderful. The film is full of vibrant blue and orange hues contrasting for a visual feast of sea, sky, fire and sunset. The CGI storms and whales are breathtaking, as well as the sets – both the ship and Nantucket are rich tapestries of a bygone era. There are some stumbling blocks in the putting together of the story and characters. Chris Hemsworth for all his star power has been miscast. Amongst the greys of the humble sailors he stands out from the period like a sore thumb. In half of his scenes he sounds strikingly similar to Elmer Fudd, more so than New England sailor. Mid-way through the film he appears to relapse into a booming homogenous American accent. The rest of the cast’s respective talents have been underutilised and the film’s best actors, Gleeson and Whishaw, are forced to wade through tiresome clichéd dialogue. Layers of soppiness drench their latter scenes together, and Melville’s original material has been completely whitewashed for emotional gratification – a hypocrisy considering one of the strong themes of the filmmakers was adherence to truth.
There’s a sense of being cheated by the marketing of the film which focuses exclusively on the enigma of the whale. In the Heart of the Sea prominently follows the harrowing aftermath of the whale attack. There is great potential with themes of starvation, bravery, suicide, redemption and cannibalism. Yet none of these are fleshed out as well as they could be. No doubt the mandatory PG-13 rating to get audiences in seats has stifled the raw depravity and hopelessness the latter half of the film deserves.
In the Heart of the Sea tells two stories. One told quite well is of humans’ endeavour to conquest ferocious weather and beast, faith and mercy, and meritocracy and nepotism. The second act is one of human survival and the mercurial raw nature of humanity. This half is not told nearly as well, and lacks the gravitas and imaginative nature of the first. The sperm whale with its prodigious size, mammalian aggression, intelligence, and magnanimous nature should have been the star of this film. Howard has made an oblique yet overall commendable and beautiful film.
In the Heart of the Sea is in cinemas from 3rd December through Roadshow Films.