At the Movies: ‘In the Heart of the Sea’ is worth a watch
IN THE HEART OF THE SEA
Directed By Ron Howard
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw
Rated PG-13, Action, 121 minutes
Given that “In the Heart of the Sea” involves murder, suicide, cannibalism and the killing of sperm whales, the story ought to be quite unsettling. Competently directed by Ron Howard to retain its PG-13 rating, this film adaptation; set aboard the Esse, a Nantucket whaling ship during the 1820s; contains no profanity, has surprisingly little bloodshed and never lingers over the aftermath of the carnage.
Tasked with obtaining oil needed for lamps, lubricating industrial machinery and manufacturing cosmetics, a successful whaling ship was a bloody, stinking place while it plied its trade. But sperm whales were becoming difficult to find close to home, and the Essex whaling ship was expected to return loaded with 2,000 barrels of oil (an average whale yields 30 barrels).
The account penned by the youngest Essex crew member, Thomas Nickerson, became the basis for an award-winning non-fiction book penned by Nathaniel Philbrick. This film is the same tale, also told by first mate Owen Chase, that inspired Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.”
While Chase wrote his account within a year of returning home in 1822, Nickerson was an old man when he wrote his story, 50 years later. Just 14 when first he set sail on the Essex, Nickerson, like the other survivors, made a pact to hide their cannibalism. However, as the last remaining crew member alive, Nickerson decided to tell the whole story. He wrote an 80-page manuscript that was lost until 1964 and once unearthed, spent another 20 years waiting to be authenticated.
Whaling ships of this period were clunky, dangerous vessels atop wooden hulls. Anyone hitching his fortune to such a craft was either brave, foolish or desperate.
When we meet Owen Chase (played by Chris Hemsworth), he has been promised a captaincy. He’s an ace with a harpoon, understands his crew and can perform every job aboard the ship. Owen fumes when management reneges on its promise, but he is persuaded to sail as first mate by a 1/15th share of the bounty and a future captaincy. For now, he must serve under the owner’s son, untried captain Captain George Pollard, Jr. (Benjamin Walker).
The film makes a halfhearted attempt to create tension from the collision between Pollard’s arrogance and Chase’s righteous indignation, but in short order, Chase’s own greed and ambitions find him leading the Essex into uncertain waters.
An early scene establishes director Howard’s fascination with the ship’s complicated sailing apparatus. Trimmed with about 20 sails when in full regalia, she’s dressed to kill — until Pollard orders the wheelman to steer her straight into a squall that tears her lovely sheets. Howard takes the opportunity to show off Hemsworth’s physique and athleticism as he scrambles up the main mast to free a tangled sail.
After the squall mishap, Chase disabuses Pollard of the notion they ought return to port for repairs. Then a year later (with the oil of just one whale in their storeroom), Chase advises Pollard to seek Northern Atlantic waters, where many whales can be found but are said to be protected by a ferocious white male.
To remind us how unsubstantial these whaling ships were, Howard’s camera helicopters above to capture the white beast — its superior length and breadth exciting to behold. A dozen shots of the creature’s upraised flukes look most like the tail of a jetliner.
While never boring, the script and its characters are far too mannerly. After the white whale smashes their vessel, it follows the three small whaling boats containing the survivors. Yet, neither the director nor the actors create the tension we imagine such a predicament would cause.
It’s an adequate film, even enjoyable, but some part of me yearns to see the gritty version sure to haunt my sleep.