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Film Review: In the Heart of the Sea

In the Heart of the Sea (2015; Directed by Ron Howard)

The wide-scope, fictionalized big-screen adaptation of the events surrounding the sinking of the American whaleship Essex in the Pacific Ocean in 1820 might have been either a greater film or a greater disaster in the hands of a director other than Ron Howard. Instead, it’s entirely competent but practically never transcendent, an uneven experience in quality and tone, and never anywhere near as grand, resonant, heroic, and deeply weird as the almost incredible events it relates. That it never approaches the philosophical depth and power of signification of the American literary classic that the sinking of the Essex inspired, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, should not be surprising. But for all of its furious motion and visual furor, In the Heart of the Sea is also neither as engaging or exciting on a visceral level as it simply ought to be, given its subject.

That subject begs at least a short synopsis (and some subsequent spoilers), for those among you not strongly versed in early 19th-century American maritime history. In 1820, hunting and harvesting whales for the bright-burning oil produced by boiling down their copious blubber (as well as for various other consumer by-products) was a lucrative worldwide industry, and in the United States, the island of Nantucket was the bustling capital of the trade. The Essex departed Nantucket that year under the command of Captain George Pollard, Jr. (Benjamin Walker), the scion of a prominent Nantucket whaling family, with Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) as his first mate. The crew’s quest for the largest creatures on earth takes them south around the Horn of South America into the warm and remote South Pacific, thousands of miles from land. A fateful encounter with a white mottled sperm whale will doom their ship and set them on a desperate struggle for survival.

In true pop-postmodernist tradition, the tale of the Essex in In the Heart of the Sea is contained by the narrative device of its last living survivor, former cabin boy Thomas Nickerson (Tom Holland as a boy, Brendan Gleeson as an older man), relating the full, stunning story over the course of a long night to Melville (Ben Whishaw), who will use many of its elements in his famous novel. The conversation between Nickerson and Melville is returned to by Howard as the Essex narrative moves along, and might be the consistently best thing about the film. Two thespians of the calibre and subtlety of Whishaw and Gleeson, discussing the dread of memory in an atmospheric room surrounded by ships in bottles in a quasi-stage drama, their dual act occasionally triangulated by Michelle Fairley as Nickerson’s steely but not unsympathetic wife; it’s as good as it sounds, and I found myself wishing for more of it. Certainly, its core conceit is just that: Melville insists that he can only get the true account of the Essex affair from Nickerson, not mentioning the existence of Chase’s well-known published account (Nickerson’s own writings about it were only published in 1984, and In the Heart of the Sea draws from historian Nathaniel Philbrick’s book of the same name, based on both accounts). But these scenes do their job well, better than they strictly need to.

Which is more than can be said of the technically fine but often uninspired re-creation of the Essex‘s final voyage itself. Some of the shipboard sequences hum like a commonly-remembered shanty, especially the swift, deftly cut rigging business that the athletic Chase spearheads as the ship bears out of Nantucket early on. Howard and his screenwriter Charles Leavitt find time for a kinetic initial whale hunt as well as for the gory details of the processing of the whale carcass (the teenaged Nickerson is even sent into the sperm whale’s huge, putrid head to scoop out its highly valuable spermaceti). It’s only a taste of what you get from Melville, let alone from various non-fiction works, but as far as CGI-empowered big-budget Hollywood depictions of the golden age of American whaling go, In the Heart of the Sea is the best that we’re likely to get for some time (at least until Peter Jackson directs an expensive, five-hour new version of Moby-Dick with Andy Serkis playing the whale through motion-capture, that is).

But Leavitt’s script, and Howard’s direction of it, piles one Hollywood narrative convention after another onto a story that is anything but conventional. Chase leaves a pregnant wife (Charlotte Riley) at home, who gives him a metal token on a chain necklace to remember her by (she probably couldn’t afford a locket with her picture in it). Pollard and Chase are set up as contrasting rivals: Pollard is an inexperienced aristocratic dandy who gets the command over the more experienced Chase, to whom it was promised by the enterprise’s financiers, through his august family connections, which are held above Chase’s own modest “landsman” origins. The denouement concerning the backing company’s attempts to whitewash the inquiry into the tragedy of any reference to a destructive whale, which might discourage investors and drive sailors away from whaling, struck me as just a bit too rich, as well.

The sinking of the Essex by the great whale, meanwhile, is underwater CG murkiness, cracking timber and hurrying men, rushing water and bursting flame, a sequence both frantically overbusy and strangely inert. Howard cannot even meet halfway with the macabre horror of the cannibalism that the surviving whalers must resort to in order to survive two months stranded at sea in whaleboats, asking composer Roque Baños for standard-issue sad piano music on the score and having his characters steadfastly refer to their cannibalism as the unthinkable “abomination” (did they mean homosexual intercourse, I kept wondering?).

Chris Hemsworth, who is less an actor than a kind of human multi-bit screwdriver, is less the film’s star than its primary engine, to mix mechanical metaphors just a smidgeon. On the Essex or in its whaleboats, his Owen Chase is less a fully-formed person than a cog in its complex machine, impossible to separate from, say, the rigging in any meaningful way. To call him unreflective here is a tremendous understatement; indeed, besides scant moments of Holland’s shock and horror and some brief late work from Cillian Murphy as Chase’s longtime friend facing his certain end on a barren island, there is very little actorly recognition of the depth of the sailors’ predicament that sticks with you.

Ron Howard is not a reflective filmmaker, but he is technically proficient to such an extent that this proficiency becomes the point of his films, banishing any numinous aura that may threaten to linger. This was greatly to his advantage in his best film, Apollo 13, wherein technical proficiency was celebrated as a kind of determined low-key romantic heroism in front of the camera as well as behind it. The techniques of whaling receive this sort of burnished treatment in In the Heart of the Sea, but the deeper philosophical questions about human nature, about the difficulty of forgiving ourselves for what we do to survive not only the most terrible of ordeals but also each and every day, are given more cursory attention.

Whishaw’s Melville hints to Gleeson’s Nickerson that his fiction based on the Essex events would steer clear of invoking the acts of cannibalism but that the metaphorical thrust of the sailors’ ordeal would be preserved. Moby-Dick is about deep and dark human hungers, be they for violent revenge or for artificial light in the nightly darkness, but In the Heart of the Sea barely scratches the surface of these questions even as it suggests that it does more than that. It also clumsily inverts the obsessed pursuit of the white whale by Captain Ahab. The whale that sunk the Essex does not merely haunt the memory of the desperate survivors of its wreck (who, by the historical accounts, never again glimpsed it after it rammed the hull). It follows them for hundred of miles, seemingly merely to effect a staredown with Chase that gestures towards a cross-species commonality of suffering and feeling. It’s one of several attempt to dive deeper than the mere surface of the text in In the Heart of the Sea, and like much of the rest of the film is an intriguing but underfinished disappointment.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews
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  1. June 27, 2016 at 12:50 pm

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