Movie Review: Ron Howard’s ‘In the Heart of the Sea’
Auteur Ron Howard has developed something special with In the Heart of the Sea — in breadth, visual astuteness, and laudable performances. The film has lofty ambitions, and may not live up to all of them — in terms of depth of character and its tendency to rush through certain conflicts — but it is a riotous and ultimately fruitful 121 minutes. Plus, viewers get an additional subplot that pays off in a grand way: with the publication of Melville’s Moby-Dick.
In the Heart of the Sea purports to be the inspiration behind Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick, or The Whale. While Melville’s role in the film (he is played by Ben Whishaw, Spectre) is purely exposition-based, he is still lively and charismatic; basically, it is fun to see a literary icon resurrected and wedged into a larger narrative. But the film truly belongs to Chris Hemsworth (Avengers: Age of Ultron), who plays Owen Chase, the inspired and shrewd first mate on the whaling ship Essex. Hemsworth makes use of his screen time, and tends to salvage some of the scenes that could wither to mediocrity. The supporting cast should not be overlooked, either, and includes Tom Holland (who plays the young Thomas Nickerson), Benjamin Walker (who plays Captain George Pollard, Jr.), and Cillian Murphy (who plays Matthew Joy, the second mate). Each man provides a degree of alacrity that helps keep the larger narrative afloat.
While Charles Leavitt’s screenplay (based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s novel) is a bit too speedy at times, it does still take the time to develop the external, maritime conflict. He introduces “the whale” with a proper amount of suspicion and unearthliness. Just like Brendan Gleeson’s character (the old Thomas Wickerson) is a framing tool, so is the whale. Although he sinks the Essex and endangers Captain Pollard’s men, he is still an overshadowed component of this film — eclipsed by nature’s wrath and the larger moral story that Howard and Leavitt manage to work in. And that is: that man is inherently a meddler. Are we in fact “earthly kings,” as Captain Pollard suggests, or does “the whale” help us put that notion to bed? In the Heart of the Sea goes to great lengths to remain constructive, versus just plain and “commercial.”
And enough cannot be said about the cinematography and the editing (done by Anthony Dod Mantle, who’s the DP, and editors Dan Hanely and Mike Hill). The CGI whale is impressive (think Life of Pi), as are the costumes of the stringent, Protestant New Englanders. Altogether, this is a throwback film, one that does not really get made anymore. It is sentimental, colorful, and a bit too big for its britches. But it’s quite alright. While it doesn’t exactly compare to something like Master and Commander, it can still fend for itself in the larger, densely-packed ocean that is contemporary Hollywood.
In the Heart of the Sea begins as Herman Melville (Whishaw) presses Thomas Nickerson (Gleeson) to tell him his story about the Essex, which sunk some 30 years beforehand. Nickerson, who is one of the only surviving seamen from the “excursion,” at first refuses to tell his tale. But his wife, played by Michelle Fairley, presses him to relent, for Melville has offered to pay a handsome sum of money. Because of his wife’s persistence, Nickerson begins to tell the tale of the Essex, saying it belonged to two people: Owen Chase and George Pollard, Jr.
Cue the flashback: Owen Chase (Hemsworth) is ready to stake his claim as a whaling boat captain with the proud and rapacious Nantucket sea families. Much to his chagrin, he is only offered a first mate’s position, but agrees, knowing that he will be made captain in subsequent journeys. Then, he meets the cultured Captain Pollard (Walker), who will run his ship his way. First Mate Chase is happy to learn that his boyhood friend, Matthew Joy, has been named second mate (he’s played by Cillian Murphy). Young Thomas Nickerson (Holland) also comes aboard, as a 14-year-old.
The crew is quickly tested on the high seas, as Captain Pollard refuses to skirt around the edge of a storm. Instead, he decides to enter the squall, to test his men, and injures the ship. At this point, Chase and Pollard truly begin to butt heads. After sailing past Cape Horn — with little to show for it, whale oil wise — they eventually learn of a whale haven, of sorts, that is a mythic place along the equator where whales have congregated. But they learn it through a firsthand account of a Spanish captain who’s lost his men because of a demonic whale. Nevertheless, they decide to press on, toward these creatures.
Thousands of miles away from the South American headlands, they eventually encounter these whales. But with them comes another presence — “the beast,” a white whale with extraordinary capabilities and a thirst for blood. What ensues is a riveting tale of man versus nature, and survival, that will keep you engaged and thoroughly entertained. Will the men survive? Will Chase become captain? Or even, will Melville ultimately get what he needs from Nickerson to write the account of the Essex?
Here are a couple of scenes to look out for in Ron Howard’s film:
- The Squall: The scene when the crew gets riffled around by the storm in the early stages of its circumnavigation.
- The Island: When the crew gets marooned on an island, it is interesting to see what the men eat and what some of the crew elect to do upon the later departure.
- Consumed: Watching Ben Whishaw’s character, Herman Melville, become completely absorbed by Nickerson’s tale is a lot of fun, mostly for knowing what lies beyond it. Personifying Melville is lofty, but fruitful.
Be sure to catch Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea at a theater near you.
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