There have been a handful of adaptations of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick dating back to 1926, for example there was apparently a TV miniseries version with William Hurt and Ethan Hawke a few years ago that I had no idea existed until researching for this review. There’s only really one lasting, famous version it seems, John Huston’s 1956 film with Gregory Peck. That film, while generally holding up fairly well does have one glaring problem if you watch it now; that the whale is so obviously artificial. It’s for that reason that when I saw the film a few years ago, I did wonder when someone would get around to making a new, big-budget adaptation that could utilise modern technology to portray the whale properly.
Ron Howard’s decided not to do that exactly, but instead make a film about the true story that inspired Moby-Dick, that of the whaleship Essex. It sounds like a pretty good idea on paper, allowing Howard to get all the seafaring action up on screen but surround it with a less familiar story.
In the Heart of the Sea still very much plays up its connections to Moby-Dick however, the film employs a framing device in which Herman Melville (played by Ben Whishaw) visits Thomas Nickerson, an aging, alcoholic former sailor in Nantucket. He offers Nickerson a substantial amount of money to tell him the story of the Essex, a whaleship that sank decades earlier and which Nickerson is now the only survivor from.
Despite being the one telling the story, the teenage Nickerson (Tom Holland) is not the focus of the story. The main character is Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), an experienced whaler who at the start is expecting to be made captain. He has to settle for first mate though, as captaincy is instead granted to George Pollard Jr (Benjamin Walker), who comes from a wealthy, connected family but does not share Chase’s experience of the sea.
This inevitably leads to friction between the pair once they set sail, which both actors communicate well. Apparently this might have been a Thor reunion at one point with Tom Hiddleston (and a couple more famous names) considered for the role of Pollard Jr, but having a less famous face works to the film’s advantage; the rest of the crew (which includes Cillian Murphy as a childhood friend of Chase’s) are familiar with Chase but not Pollard, who feels the need to make a strong first impression. Despite his potentially dangerous decisions – an early storm scene is very effective – the film never attempts to make Pollard out to be a villain, a decision that in the light of the film’s later events proves quite sensible.
When I first heard about this film, I had hoped that this would be more the story of the whale itself than the sailors hunting it. It’s such a fascinating concept to me, that a bull sperm whale, who we know are highly intelligent animals, would begin attacking whaling ships instead of trying to escape from them. All sequences involving whales in the film are spectacular, from an early successful hunt, to their later encounters with the huge, aggressive whale that forms the film’s centrepiece.
During these scenes, Howard edits quickly between shots from the men’s perspective, both on the water’s surface and on the boat, some underwater ones and a few impressive aerial views that truly convey the immense size of the animal. Other than these very brief moments, he only allows the audience to glimpse the whale when the sailors do. It’s a decision that feels both realistic yet also less rewarding cinematically, for a film sold with a gigantic whale’s fluke on the poster the animals appear for probably 10 minutes total.
I can’t help but wonder if there was some way the film could have got more whale action in without cheapening the story. The way the animal acts seems initially protective if it’s fellow whales, but later appears to be actively tracking the whalers. Imagine if we had been given another side of the story from the whale’s duelling perspective – a sort of wordless vigilante whale movie.
Making what is in some ways a monster movie about whaling in today’s light does present another potential concern, seeing how attitudes toward the barbarous practice have altered immensely and we now know of the irreparable harm it did to whale populations. In the Heart of the Sea does a sufficient job of making the whalers sympathetic characters in that regard. They are working men trying to earn a living performing a tough and dangerous job, while those who really profit from it sit safely back home in Nantucket, caring far more about the amount of oil they can bring back than the lives of their employees. At the same time, it doesn’t shy away from the fact that the men see nothing apparently cruel in the brutal methods they use to slaughter the animals. Like Moby Dick the film is also good at portraying whaling methods and jargon without resorting to exposition.
The film’s latter half becomes rather different, seguing into a survival movie following the disaster on the ship as the crew are stranded at sea. There are some powerful character moments that never become over dramatic in these scenes as the sailors are forced to make drastic decisions in order to persevere. Here, the arguably superfluous framing device comes more into play, with Gleeson adding gravitas with his narration, not to mention the ability to describe harsher events the film’s rating could not allow. The acting is uniformly good on all sides really, even if the always excellent Ben Whishaw ends up being underused.
As engaging as In the Heart of the Sea is, there is one unusual complaint that coukd apply to it; that it could perhaps have been a bit longer. While I admire Howard’s commitment to bringing this in at under two hours, it seems to rush through important character arcs, and the passage of time – indicated with titles cards – is never really felt.
What we have is probably better than if this had become a plodding, 3-hour epic though. As it stands In the Heart of the Sea is another solid addition to Ron Howard’s catalogue that goes some way to capturing the spirit of adventure films we rarely see on the big screen nowadays.