In the Heart of the Sea is one of those historical films that softens its blows for the comfort of the audience. A cursory glance at the actual events the film is depicting reveals that the tale was a little darker and more severe then Hollywood was willing to allow for a big expensive movie and that, ironically, is one of the film’s biggest problems.
The picture, directed by two-time Academy Award winner Ron Howard (Apollo 13, The Da Vinci Code) from a script by Charles Leavitt (Seventh Son, Blood Diamond), is based on the events that inspired the classic 1851 Herman Melville novel Moby Dick. Presented through a framing device, the story is told to the audience as it is to Melville (Ben Wishaw; Cloud Atlas, Spectre), who seeks out the last surviving crew member of the Essex, a whaling ship destroyed in 1820. The crew member, Tom Nickerson (three-time Golden Globe Award nominee Brendan Gleeson; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1, Gangs of New York), was a 14-year-old deck hand at the time and reluctantly describes the Essex’s last voyage to Melville, who is intrigued by the shroud of rumors and mystery surrounding the ship’s demise.
The story is told in flashback as Nickerson (whose younger self is played by the new Spider Man Tom Holland; How I Live Now, The Secret World of Arrietty) recounts the tale. As the ship sets out the new captain, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker; Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Flags of Our Fathers), the scion of a famous whaling family handed the commission for no other reason than his surname, and First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth; The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Snow White and the Huntsmen), a hard working man who worked his way up from nothing, enjoy an abrasive relationship that causes problems among the crew. These disagreements seem trivial however, when the ship is attacked by a creature of the deep, a massive white whale, unimaginable in size.
The events of In the Heart of the Sea are incredibly compelling and extraordinarily dark. It’s a fascinating, if unpleasant, piece of history that is notable for more than one reason but Howard, or perhaps the studio, seems unwilling to address these aspects head on. When finally forced to, the events depicted on screen are only a fraction of the reality the crew of the Essex had to go through and that last minute squeamishness does the movie no favors.
The events preceding and following the destruction of the Essex have been fictionalized, an unavoidable necessity in any film based on a true story (real life often lacks a definable beginning, middle and end), but In the Heart of the Sea’s problem is that it isn’t fictionalized well. The film struggles to figure out just how quickly to tell its story, resulting in an opening that seems slow and a finale that is both slow and rushed depending on the scene. The middle of the film is the only spot that unequivocally works, thanks largely to a fairly simple stage direction: “giant whale attacks.”
Likewise, the conflict between Pollard and Chase is poorly handled, making the latter entirely unsympathetic to the point that it’s difficult to empathize with him and the plot line receives an unsatisfactory resolution that seems more like the filmmakers suddenly remembered at the last minute that they hadn’t addressed it in close to an hour and hurriedly rushed to tie up loose ends.
I understand the instinct to frame the story as Nickerson recounting it to Melville; the connections to Moby Dick are too good to pass up and there’s plenty of technical information that’s far more easily imparted through narration than with on-screen depiction; however, these scenes are the film’s dullest, slowing the movie down when it already has enough pacing problems to begin with. It doesn’t help that these sequences never fully justify their own existence, save perhaps in the way they depict the psychological toll of the events on Nickerson even all those years later.
The film does do an excellent job of presenting the time period. The opening sequences in the global hub of Nantucket are exceptionally realized and the attention to detail the filmmakers had when constructing a 19th century whaling town is right there on the screen. Likewise, the film’s earlier stretches are especially successful when focused on the act of whaling itself. An extended sequence in which the Essex pursues, kills and harvests a whale is both grisly and brilliantly presented.
Ron Howard’s direction is also beyond reproach. He does excellent work, much as he has always done, reveling in the picturesque landscapes the environment provides him with and imbuing the whale attack with true chaos and confusion. The special effects are also top notch, seamlessly blending real life with CGI to the point where I just couldn’t pick which was which a lot of the time. In the Heart of the Sea’s presentation is its absolute finest element and its one area that is probably deserving of some technical nods come Oscar time.
The cast is also an asset, from Hemsworth, who does great work as the film’s closest thing to a lead character, to Walker, who takes a fairly underwritten character and fleshes him out with the complexity of his performance. The film misuses two of its best performers, relegating the exceptional Brendan Gleeson and the always brilliant Ben Wishaw to its framing scenes, giving neither a chance to challenge themselves. And Golden Globe Award nominee Cillian Murphy (The Dark Knight Rises, Sunshine) seems lost in an underdeveloped role that doesn’t suit him.
In the Heart of the Sea has a truly incredible story to tell, but the manner in which it’s told lessens the impact. Ron Howard, his cast and his crew are all on top form but Charles Leavitt’s script is riddled with problems that no director or actor could overcome. There’s plenty of value to be found in In the Heart of the Sea, but that value is found in the events themselves, not in the telling of them.