Ron Howard’s In The Heart Of The Sea has finally arrived with a minnow sized splash, rather than a mighty whale sized hole in the hull of box office figures. The blame, like points of a compass, can be laid in any number of directions – the delayed release, its poor marketing; but ultimately, the film’s structure fails to deliver sufficient thrills and drama in what, on paper, is an exciting premise.
The film, long championed by star Chris Hemsworth, is based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s best-selling book about the dramatic true journey of the whaling vessel Essex, out of Nantucket. In the winter of 1820, while seeking legendary hunting grounds “in the heart of the sea”, she was assaulted by a gargantuan sperm whale, which sank her and pursued her survivors over many days with preternatural vengeance. This real-life maritime disaster would go on to inspire Herman Melville’s classic work of fiction, Moby-Dick.
The film chooses to frame the story around a “long night of the soul” as author Melville (Ben Wishaw) arrives in Nantucket 50 years later to draw the truth of the tale from a reluctant Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), back then a mere boy, played by Tom Holland. A fine enough idea, but as Hemsworth, the experienced but outsider Owen Chase, passed over for promotion, takes centre stage, why not have an older version of him recount the tale? Especially as the experience tests him so, and seems to fundamentally shake the core of his being. Nickerson cannot be privy to so many scenes we witness – the bitter jealousy between Chase and the green captain, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) scion of a wealthy whaling family; Chase’s friendship with the Second Mate (Cillian Murphy) and their emotional parting; and his ghastly discovery of survivors fates on a tiny island their boats wash ashore on after the ship is destroyed. Not to mention the captain’s travails with fellow starving survivors on his lifeboat – something he may have later shared with Chase, bonding after the disaster, but never with the boy.
Another problem with the film is possibly the (to my mind) excessive colour grading. There is no doubt an ingenious blending of effects and live action (a working replica ship was taken out to sea) but there is such a greenish-blue hue to all the stormy action, as well as long shots of a bustling Nantucket, that the effect is sometimes distancing to the viewer, rather than drawing one in.
That is not to say it isn’t a good film – it is solid entertainment. It just doesn’t deliver sufficient oomph, and clear –eyed drive. What is it? A shaggy dog story? A character study? A battle of wills between man and beast? A tale of an outsider triumphing over both nature and class division? Not one element is strong enough to propel the narrative forward.
The film’s strengths lie in the precise attention to detail in production design, and two stand-out action set pieces. They are the first successful whale hunt, and the later sinking of the Essex by the leviathan. During the chase, we thrill at the bravery of these men in tiny boats against these imposing creatures, so vividly brought to life by effects work, and then take a moment as we take in the brutal consequences of their hunt – as the exhausted, speared whale surfaces amongst its young and is finished off, its blow hole expunges a fine blood spray that spatters Nickerson’s startled face. The young lad then has to be dropped, Jonah-like, into the gutted beasts head, to retrieve the last of the hard to get precious whale oil that fuels the then modern age.
It is the sinking of the ship by the “Moby Dick” inspiration that is the visceral high point of the film, as sailors are sent tumbling pell-mell, and dodge ropes and heavy blocks whistling past, digging up chunks of deck, whilst clutching hopelessly at tumbling canvas. It is destruction to rival the combat of Peter Weir’s Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World. A pity the rest of the film does not have that director’s mastery of purpose. A fudged moment of clarity would perhaps also have been more powerful with a more commanding , expressive lead – as an exhausted, half-starved Chase rears back to spear the mighty beast and it stays its hand (fin?), a wary regard seems to pass between the species, and they improbably leave each other be. Call me esteem?