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Let’s start with a classic movie trope, and not one we’ll discuss later, but just an example of how one can be done correctly. There’s a moment during a particularly dramatic scene in In the Heart of the Sea when a sailor (Frank Dillane), who has raised a pistol to First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), demands, in front of the Captain (Benjamin Walker) and the other crew, that he admit he is scared. The tension builds as another man draws on the gunman and the Captain, the frightened sailor’s cousin, orders him to surrender the weapon. Chase, who has demonstrated from the start a kind of near legendary seamanship and fearlessness, stares the younger man down and at last turns his back on him, resolved to either prove his stature or take a bullet in the back. The moment is not new, as with much of director Ron Howard‘s open sea epic, but it is very well played out, and like all the overly-familiar ocean adventure tropes that come aboard this ship, are well-performed and visually arresting.
The plot of In The Heart Of The Sea is not necessarily the story of Moby Dick, but instead what happened after to inspire the fictional novel. The film itself is adapted from Nathaniel Philbrick‘s 2000 book of the same name, based on the real account of a cabin boy who served on the Essex, a whaling ship out of Nantucket. The book is a very engrossing narrative about life on a whaling boat and delves into rich detail the pressures and stress of a whaler’s life but also the pride and adventure. Howard mostly succeeds in capturing the feel of the book, especially at sea, but never quite gives the whaling lifestyle the depth described in the book as the film requires the plot to move forward at a much faster pace. Nothing new there.
The whale of course is perhaps the most memorable feature of the more famous book (Melville‘s Moby Dick) it inspired and every adapted film since. Howard wisely doesn’t cross the line, and by that I mean he finds a middle ground between realism and fable that never makes the whale impossible to believe, though it feels just enough mythological as to understand its lore. This is in fact how the entirety of the film, at least those moments at sea, often feel. There is a shimmery sheen to the production that is slightly saturated and fantastical, which is rather effective in carrying the premise and the plot. The whale, like any good movie monster, is rarely seen, making its impact all the more worthy. It might be disappointing to those hoping this to be a great sea battle in the vein of the story the whale eventually inspires, but it is not that. For good or for bad, the great white whale is a beast with brutal, fleeting power and lasting influence. At least for the duration of the film.
A quick synopsis: In 1820, the Essex departs Nantucket commanded by an inexperienced captain with a family name that is at the very heart of the whaling industry and therefore by lineage alone, earns him the right to lead men to sea. His First Mate (Hemsworth) is not so fortunate in his genealogy, but has vast experience on a boat and is the superior seaman, though he takes the position begrudgingly, promised (again) to be given his own ship on his return. Failing to find whales on their planned route, they hear tell of an enormous pod of whales along the Pacific equator far, far from land, protected by a creature of immense size, pale color, and an eerie sense of vengeance that the men of the Essex dismiss as tomfoolery. They set sail and find the pod but also the fabled white whale. What happens next, despite the obvious, I won’t divulge, even though the spoiler-heavy trailers give away most of the film’s story.
What follows is a veritable laundry checklist of clunky sea movie clichés and in lesser hands would probably sink the film, but Howard keeps this afloat with some grand cinematography (by Anthony Dod Mantle) and solid direction. That said, it’s unfortunate though that there is little suspense. There is nothing that this situation can provide that we haven’t seen in every other film of the genre, and while it’s acted with great skill and the drama is convincing, it suffers from familiarity. As these men try to survive while lost at sea, we nod our heads in acknowledgement as each stage ticks by with all the clichés in tack. It lacks punch and feels, by the rigidity of the situation, compulsory. Still, the film is a solid experience, and like every movie, has one great moment, one that is a classic trope that Howard truly makes pay off.
On board the Essex is a young man named Thomas Nickerson (Tom Holland). He is the film’s narrator as the story turns out to be a flashback, and while this is not a secret nor a spoiler, it creates one of the more frustrating elements in film: exposition. Nickerson is also played as a much older man by Brendan Gleeson, in the movie’s best performance, who details the adventure to Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) himself, the soon-to-be author of Moby Dick. Melville has come to the old man’s shanty to learn the truth about the real fate of the now legendary encounter the doomed Essex had with the whale. Nickerson is reluctant to delve too deep at first, but before long he and the writer sit in a darkened room, metaphorically in the shadows of his haunted past, and the whaler makes a dreadful confession to the young writer, one that no man should have to experience.
I dare not spoil what his secret is, but as it was kept locked along with the demons in his heart for so long, the older man finds great relief in unburdening this pain that has defined him since. What’s better is the doubt he carried for so long, fearing his own wife would never love him knowing the acts he undertook to survive. Of course he is wrong. She remains proud of who he is and stands firmly at his side, despite the horrific nature of his tale, one she has lived unknowing of for decades. It’s supremely effective and surprises as it removes us from where we thought we should have this experience and rightfully places it in the older man’s hands. Gleeson is simply remarkable, truly shining here, even if the entire exchange between the two men is fiction and a contrived narrative device. This is the film’s most affecting moment, effectively giving what we thought was a secondary character the real weight of the story. And it’s a flipped trope that truly works.
The trope is flashbacks of course, where we are basically given the results of an event and then step back to view the horrors of it and how it all came to be. This method of storytelling is not new and is perhaps most significantly made most effective by director Steven Spielberg in his World War II film, Saving Private Ryan, a film that begins with an elderly man facing his haunted past and seen by us in flashback, most of which the man was not even present for.
In The Heart Of The Sea follows this standard and admittedly, it is detracting at first, especially since it feels false right from the start. However, Howard handles the conceit well enough throughout that eventually, the periodic returns to the present breakup the often unstructured past (that feel like staged vignettes of absolutes in the genre) and make it work. However, while the story keeps focus on a young Nickerson for long enough that there’s no doubt the story is his, it centers most of that on Hemsworth’s character, and enough so that the tale feels like it should be his. Indeed, it is the the story of a boy learning to become a man under the wing of a mentor.
But when this moment comes, and the elder Nickerson essentially robs the plot from right in front of us, the realization is far more satisfying, taking the narrative flashback trope and giving it substantial weight. Gleeson commands attention and his painful telling, intercut with returns to the past, make for the film’s most moving moment.
That said, Hemsworth (who starred in Howard’s Rush, 2013) comes off the weakest, though that is less a criticism and more a comparison. He has little range here, as he must be the pillar of strength throughout and while he’s given the required pregnant wife who stands on the wharf alone watching her husband sail away (in a breathtaking shot but one forcing me to wonder where the other wives are waving from), he has no weight and remains, perhaps properly so, a figure of mythical prowess, often lighted from behind with the camera angled up. This is because he is the hero in Nickerson’s story, and becomes more so as the story expands until the last time we seem him when is very nearly swallowed into the light. That’s not to say Hemsworth doesn’t give this everything he’s got. The actor, best known for his impressive physique, transforms himself, and by the end, his dramatic weight loss is a testament to his commitment.
Still, In the Heart of the Sea is another fine, if not jumbled spectacle from the always reliable Howard, one that is sure to please audiences looking for some adventure. While it is predicable and never takes any risks, it is entertaining and full of great performances. As a man-versus-nature story, it loses steam in the second half and never truly defines the character’s ambitions, following a more traditional path of sea-faring stereotypes, yet it is never lacking interest. But it is the twist of a trope that make In The Heart Of The Sea a real surprise.
Director: Ron Howard
Writers: Charles Leavitt
Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson