In the Heart of the Sea, as far as I can tell, is a somewhat fictionalized film adaptation of Nathanial Philbrick’s book by the same name. That was an historical account of an incident in 1820, when the Nantucket whaling ship Essex was attacked and sunk by a sperm whale. The conceit is that this was the inspiration Herman Melville drew on to write Moby Dick. So we have a fictionalized movie version of an historical incident that has already been fictionalized into one of the most famous books of all time, which has also already been made into a movie. You sort of wonder why director Ron Howard didn’t just go all the way, and make his own Moby Dick movie.
Which is not to say In the Heart of the Sea doesn’t have its own creative reason for being. It’s just that, interestingly enough, it’s a gentler and more redemptive tale than Melville’s journey into existential rage.
For one thing, unlike Melville’s obsessed Captain Ahab, the protagonist here is the grounded and decent Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), the Essex’s first mate. He’s an experienced whaler, married to a good woman (Charlotte Riley) with a child on the way, and he would be captaining his own ship by now were it not for the fact that he was born a commoner. His only real conflict is with George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), the son of a local aristocrat, who is given command of the Essex by its owners, despite their previous promise the position would go to Chase this time around. Also on board is Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy), an old friend and colleague of Chase’s, and the cabin boy Tom Nickerson (Tom Holland), who develops a rapport with the experienced whaler.
Despite some slippage in his Nantucket accent, Hemsworth makes for a capable leading man in what is, in many respects, an old-school swashbuckler role. And Walker is able to communicate a man who possesses better instincts, but regularly loses them to the anger, fear, and self-doubt brought on by the pressures of his lineage. Once the Essex sets out to sea, Pollard tries to assert his authority, and dispel his envy of Chase’s easy command of the crew, by sailing the ship into a squall that almost capsizes it. That leads to a throwdown fight between Pollard and Chase in the captain’s quarters, and both men agree to get the whaling over and down with so they can be rid of one another as quickly as possible.
The Essex plot line, which takes up the majority of the film, is actually an extended flashback told by an aging Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson). Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw), still a young and hungry novelist, tracks the older man down where he works as a boarder. Nickerson is a despondent alcoholic on the verge of bankruptcy. So Melville offers him three months worth of pay in exchange for the full details of his story. And the funny part is, these scenes actually provide In the Heart of the Sea with the majority of its emotional oomph.
Due to the nature of the plot, the big action set pieces and the confrontation with the whale hit about midway through the movie. That means the third act and the climax must deal with quieter and grimmer matters, as the characters are forced into ever-more desperate straights to survive. This is where the scenes between the older Nickerson and Melville come to the fore: Nickerson is eaten up with horror at what happened, and his early refusal to talk lends the proceedings a doom-heavy substance. Melville is dealing with his own fears of inadequacy as a writer, but it’s actually Nickerson’s wife (Michelle Fairley, who you may well recognize from Game of Thrones) – her love and her determination to salvage the marriage – that ultimately breaks down Nickerson’s walls and forces him to divulge his demons. All three performances are crucial to why these scenes work as well as they do.
This catharsis is mirrored in the relationship between Chase and Pollard, who are each faced with the same choice of ethical principle by the end. But it’s also mirrored, in a very subtle way, by Chase’s relationship with the whale. One modern difficulty for a period-piece whaling adventure is that we know how remarkably intelligent and emotionally complex these animals are, and have rightly concluded whaling is a moral outrage. So it’s a lot harder to get an action-adventure thrill out of a whale hunt. Howard tackles this problem with, first of all, some fantastic direction and camerawork. This is definitely the director’s most vibrant work since Rush. But Howard also swings expertly between visual treatment of the whales as mysterious leviathans from the dark, and then glimpses of their calves and family units, and a powerful shot of the whalers being splattered with blood from a dying whale’s blowhole.
In the Heart of the Sea never goes so far as to say the whale is attacking the men as an act of collective vengeance for its species, but the thematic implication is certainly there. At the same time, neither Howard nor screenwriter Charles Leavitt present the whale as a figure of wronged innocence. So both the whale and Chase become figures of struggle and rage, competing for the audience’s empathy, and both seeking their own measure of peace. It’s a nice flourish to what is often a straight-forward adventure yarn, told with welcome compactness by Levitt. Combined with the evocative score by Roque Baños, and Howard’s punchy direction, In the Heart of the Sea makes for some solid Grade B entertainment. If you go in expecting Rush, except with whales and harpoons, you’ll probably be well served.