Stirring story, despite some floundering, in Moby-Dick prequel ‘In the Heart of the Sea’
In modern adspeak, it would be Moby-Dick: The Prequel! The fact-based seafaring drama, In The Heart of the Sea, features a whaling ship and a supernaturally gigantic white whale, but it’s not quite the story you’re expecting. Instead of the early adventures of Captain Ahab, Ron Howard’s film is adapted from the award-winning 2000 nonfiction book by Nathaniel Philbrick, In The Heart Of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. The book tells the story of the harrowing real-life 1820 whaling voyage that inspired Herman Melville to write Moby-Dick.
With its literary pedigree, impressive production values and strong cast, it ought to be a rousing movie experience. And there are moments when it all works—especially if, like me, you can’t resist the romance of a sailing ship on the open sea. But there are other moments that drag like a fouled anchor, when Howard’s Hollywood sensibility gets a little schmaltzy—swelling music, philosophical points driven home with harpoon-like subtlety, and a bracketing story that interrupts more often than it informs.
Still, in terms of mood and atmosphere, this movie takes you on a ride. Scripted by Charles Leavitt, it begins in 1850, when young Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) arrives at a boarding house on the island of Nantucket to interview its proprietor, Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson). As a boy, Nickerson was one of the few survivors of the last unfortunate whaling voyage of the Essex, and Melville pays a night’s rent to hear Nickerson’s horrifying story—which he’s never told anyone before, not even his loyal wife (Michelle Fairley, aka Ned Stark’s widow in Game of Thrones).
Flashback to 1820. Veteran whaler Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) has been promised his own whaleship to captain by the consortium of owners and insurers who run the business. But first they send him on one more voyage as First Mate on the Essex, under tinhorn Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), whose rich daddy is one of the backers.
The ship sets off with Chase’s old comrade, Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy), and young Thomas Nickerson (Tom Holland) on board, along with the usual grizzled sea dogs. It’s pretty clear who the superior seaman is as tensions mount between captain and mate (among other things, Pollard orders them into the teeth of a squall with all sails set). In the South Atlantic, they finally spot a pod of whales, and the hunt is on.
Scenes of the ship’s boats stalking and killing a whale are awful (as they are meant to be), but it’s business as usual for the whalers, who gut the animal and store away the chunks of blubber that will be used for whale oil—the principal fuel of the era. But the Essex has to sail all the way around Cape Horn and deep into the unchartered Pacific before they find more whales—including the “demon” they heard about in a grog shop in Ecuador, a massive white bull whale who doesn’t take kindly to puny human interlopers messing with his pod.
By now, of course, we’re all rooting for the whales, which is kind of the point. It would be nice if Howard let us make these connections for ourselves, without quite so much Nature vs. Big Oil sermonizing. It’s enough that Chase gradually undergoes a crisis of conscience (especially in a great scene where he’s trying to spear the whale, but is paralyzed in the spotlight of the beast’s huge, knowing eye); a philosophical talk he has with Pollard is superfluous. Back on the home front, a revelation between the Nickersons as he unburdens himself to Melville impedes the action of the story Howard is supposed to be telling. It’s not the Nickersons’ story, and the emotion feels unearned.
But Hemsworth gives a perfectly respectable performance as Chase. His flat New England accent gets away from him now and then, but he never loses his moral authority. The bustling waterfront scenes and shipboard action (with pretty terrific effects by VFX supervisor Jody Johnson) make for compelling historical drama—if you don’t mind a little sentimental blubber.
IN THE HEART OF THE SEA
**1/2 (out of four)
With Chris Hemsworth, Ben Whishaw, Benjamin Walker, Tom Holland, Cillian Murphy, and Brendan Gleeson. Written by Charles Leavitt. Directed by Ron Howard. A Warner Bros. release. Rated PG-13 120 minutes.
FIRST MATE Chris Hemsworth in Ron Howard’s ‘In The Heart of the Sea,’ adapted from the award-winning nonfiction book ‘In The Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex.’