Author: JoAnne Hyde
Date: December 10, 2015

SYNOPSIS: In the winter of 1820, the New England whaling ship Essex was assaulted by something no one could believe: a whale of mammoth size and will, and an almost human sense of vengeance. The real-life maritime disaster would inspire Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. But that told only half the story. "In the Heart of the Sea" reveals the encounter's harrowing aftermath, as the ship's surviving crew is pushed to their limits and forced to do the unthinkable to stay alive. Braving storms, starvation, panic and despair, the men will call into question their deepest beliefs, from the value of their lives to the morality of their trade, as their captain searches for direction on the open sea and his first mate still seeks to bring the great whale down.

On August 12, 1819, the whaling ship Essex set sail out of Nantucket, MA, on its way to the South Pacific whaling grounds. In November, 1820, it sank, 2000 nautical miles from the west coast of South America, after being repeatedly rammed by a sperm whale. The Essex wasnít the only ship to be sunk by a whale Ė there were at least 4 others Ė but it was the one that caught the fancy of Herman Melville who based his epic novel MOBY DICK on the Essexís unfortunate fate. Ron Howard gives his audience a riveting account of it in his new film IN THE HEART OF THE SEA. Heís given us a fine film, but that doesnít mean itís not a bit of an ordeal to watch.

Although Melville had already written his novel by the time he spoke with survivors of the Essex, Howard frames the filmís story within an interview between Melville (Ben Whishaw) and Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) who had been a 14 year old cabin boy on the Essex. The interview takes place in 1850, so much of the story is told in flashback.

Besides the action at sea, several other secondary conflicts keep the plot moving along. Chris Hemsworth plays First Mate Owen Chase to Captain George Pollard, played by Benjamin Walker. Pollard comes from one of Nantucketís premier sea-faring families while Chase is the son of a farmer. The class bias between them sets up a number of disagreements as to how the Essex should be handled. Of course, the Maritime Board demands an explanation of the Essexís loss as they look for someone blame for the financial hit.

Tom Holland, portraying Tom Nickerson as a boy, brings a combination of wide-eyed innocence, the exhilaration of being at sea, and repulsion at some of the tasks he has to do. Thereís a nice contrast between the boy Tom and the broken man from whom Melville coaxes the ďbig reveal,Ē And, no, Iím not going to spoil that for you!

Howard does a laudable job of bringing a long-ago reality to life as we are transported back to an era when whale oil was the primary power source. As one character states: ďThe world is lit with whale oil.Ē The great whaling families controlled enormous wealth just as the petroleum barons would in the future. IN THE HEART OF THE SEA unfolds during a time before machines sped up the rate of production, and therefore, life. Everything is done by hand making the pace of life inherently slower. For this reason, the film sometimes feels slow as well. Adding to a slower pace is the fact that the survivors of the shipwreck are lost at sea for a very long time. Itís a two hour film, and I would have liked to see the narrative tightened up just a bit.

Visually, IN THE HEART OF THE SEA alternates between the beauty of the open sea and sky and the stark brutality of whale hunting. The first Ė and only Ė capture and rendering of a whale is appalling to both the Essexís crew and the film audience. It makes the Kharma-like encounter of the Essex with the aggressive sperm whale that ends it seem inevitable.

All of the actors do an admirable job, enhanced by the knowledge that many of them had to lose enormous amounts of weight for the lost-at-sea segment. Shooting off the Canary Islands in the Atlantic, they also endured cold and wet conditions. Hemsworth has said in interviews that it was the most physically demanding role of his career so far.

There was one major distraction that detracted from the effectiveness of the film for me. Donít get me wrong; Chris Hemsworth is one of my favorite actors. Thatís why Iím so puzzled that Ron Howard would allow his characterís accent to vary so extremely. Hemsworth sounds alternately British, contemporary American, and sort of New England-like. I canít believe that Hemsworth wasnít capable of providing a consistent accent. That, in itself, is not enough to torpedo the power of the story, but it damages the illusion of being immersed in that long-past time. I, for one, didnít want anything to jolt me back to the present or remind me that the men on film werenít the actual men they portrayed. - JoAnne Hyde


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