In the Heart of the Sea doesn’t get off to a good start, when you quickly realise that neither Ben Whishaw or Brendan Gleeson can do a very convincing American accent.
They respectively play Herman Melville, the author of the classic novel Moby Dick, and Tom Nickerson, a former crew member of the whaleship Essex. Melville has visited Nickerson after hearing rumours that their ship wasn’t run aground as officially reported, but atracked by a giant whale.
At first relectant to divulge the secrets of his voyage, Nickerson soon caves in and begins to tell the tale that would inspire Moby Dick. From here on in, the narrative flits back and forth between past and present, recounting the events that led to the sinking of the ship.
Much like Jaws isn’t just a film about a shark – a statement that film critic Mark Kermode frequently makes – In the Heart of the Sea isn’t just a film about a whale. More than anything, it’s in fact a moral fable about the greed, cruelty and the smallness of mankind.
The main focus of the story are the crew of the ill-fated vessel, in particularly the Captain and First Mate whose rivalry takes centre stage throughout. Owen Chase – played by a typically brooding Chris Hemsworth – feels embittered that whilst this voyage should have been his first as Captain, he still has to play First Mate to the ‘green’ George Pollard, who only gets the gig based on his family name.
For the first act we get to see the two constantly trying to assert their dominance, which eventually leads to the crew being sent into the eye of a storm. This section of the movie actually works well, feeling like a boy’s own adventure set on the Seven Seas.
Their mission to kill whales and harvest over two-thousand barrels of the oil from their blubber, plays out like some kind of joyous jaunt for the men. But, in a sequence that sees the crews faces soaked by the blood of a whale, it’s made clear that their fates are sealed.
It’s a brilliant moment of cinema, followed up some evocative cinematography of the firelit ship at night. The sense of doom is palpable and it isn’t long before the giant whale shows up to torment the greedy whalers and put them in their place.
There’s something darkly enjoyable about seeing the characters get their comeuppance, as In the Heart of the Sea draws to mind films like Jurassic Park, which serve to remind us of nature’s indomitable fury.
When the monster finally shows up for what are two genuinely thrilling sequences, In the Heart of the Sea is at its most entertaining. Ron Howard directs with confidence, and the combination of superb visual effects, as well as stunning cinematography, mean that the film is largely enjoyable.
After the initial attacks however, the film starts to lose some of its energy and falls into a bout of heavy mysticism surrounding the whale and what it really represents. As the shipwrecked crew struggle to survive at sea with little supplies, it loses that early sense of adventure, all the while playing it too safe to ever show us the full extent of the horrors that these men had to commit.
It’s in these moments that the back and forth between Melville and Nickerson becomes far more interesting, as the two both come to terms with their own fears. However, with the two timelines constantly vying for our attentions, the film feels messy and confused at times.
This is what really lets In the Heart of the Sea down, but it isn’t enough to ruin the experience completely. There’s definitely a lot of good within it, it’s just a case of too many ideas fighting each other at once. At times it feels like it’s trying to be a big blockbuster, and others it feels like it’s trying to be something much more meaningful. The two never sit comfortably together.
That said, In the Heart of the Sea falls into the same camp as this year’s Tomorrowland from Brad Bird, a film whose imperfections could be overlooked to a degree. There’s a lot of good and bad in both, but there’s just enough of the former to recommend seeing it on the big screen.
Image credit to http://www.collider.com