Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby Dick is alternately one the greatest and one of the most tedious books of all time. Melville’s epic summations of human history and culture are wonderfully evocative but his frequent and long-winded descriptions of whaling contraptions are a major chore. Ron Howard’s latest film, In The Heart of The Sea, which is based on the true story behind Moby Dick – the sinking of the whaling ship the Essex – has neither the brilliance nor the tedium of Melville’s novel but instead provides a grimly powerful tale of survival and shipboard conflict.
The film employs the framing device of Melville (Ben Wishaw) coaxing the story of the Essex’ fate from one of its survivors, former cabin boy Tomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson). Nickerson recalls how, in 1820, the Essex, shrouded in tension due to the antipathy between first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) and green horn captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) was obliterated by a gigantic white sperm whale. Their ship smashed, the crew, cast adrift on the ocean, were forced to adopt the most desperate and hideous measures to survive.
The film focuses on Chase, attempting to portray him as a salty sea dog and working class hero fighting the authoritarian rule of uppity rich kid Pollard. Hemsworth’s depiction of Chase is problematic though. He’s oddly inconsistent without being interestingly conflicted. At one stage he’s the dynamic hero leaping about the boat rigging like Tyrone power or Errol Flynn and jumping to the defence of downtrodden sailors. At other times he’s destructively ambitious and greedy. Unfortunately, these contradictions are all surface and don’t suggest a compelling internal conflict. It also doesn’t help that Hemsworth has one of the wobbliest American accents ever heard on screen and with his blonde locks and unbuttoned shirt he looks like something off the cover of a Mills and Boon novel. Chase’s conflict with Pollard also lacks sting as the two young, handsome, adventurous and ambitions blokes are too similar. Their clashes are feeble in comparison to the shipboard battles witnessed in films like Mutiny on the Bounty or the Caine Mutiny.
The film has woven through it threads of other films including the desperate survival narrative and unruly beards of Castaway, the menacing life-boat drama of Life of Pi and the sea monster threat of Jaws. The film also recalls the existential misery of The Grey and in this respect avoids Howard’s typical affirmation of family values and human decency. Howard cleverly prevents the film from appearing too derivative by distracting the audience with action and spectacle. The whale attacks and vast ocean storms are depicted in punishing detail making the film quite a gruelling experience. Although drenched in cgi the film still provides visceral thrills and white knuckle tension.
The film is, however, uncomfortably ambiguous in its stance on whaling industry itself. At times Howard portrays whalers as sympathetic and heroic and whales as calculating sea monsters. At other times the film condemns man’s arrogance and avarice toward these creatures. It is important to remember that the story depicts the attitudes of people in the 1850’s where conservation movement designed to protect whales were almost unheard of.
With its dark themes and often bleak depiction of humanity, In the Heart of the Sea is not for all tastes but it demonstrates once again Ron Howard’s ability to conjure a potent drama.
Nick’s rating: ***.
Genre: Biographical adventure.
Director(s): Ron Howard.
Release date: 3rd December 2015.
Running time: 121 mins.
Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM. Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. http://subcultureentertainment.com/2014/02/the-good-the-bad-the-ugly-film-show
- What’s on ‘Built For Speed’, Friday 11th December 2015
- Film review: CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, from Built For Speed
- Film review: LIFE OF PI, from Built For Speed
- Film review: AUTOLUMINESCENT: ROWLAND S. HOWARD, from Built for Speed
- Film review: 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE, from ‘Built For Speed’