An Epic Tale
I could watch Brendan Gleeson reading the phone book. The communication between his character, Tom Nickerson and Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) carries In the Heart of the Sea through the ups and downs and backs and forths that might have otherwise made the film feel a bit drawn out.
Based on the book by Nathaniel Philbrick and directed by Ron Howard, In the Heart of the Sea recounts the true story of the Essex, a whaling ship out of Nantucket that was sunk by a huge sperm whale in 1820. The story became the inspiration for Melville’s Moby Dick. The Essex, with her first mate Chase (Chris Hemsworth) and captain Pollard (Benjamin Walker) at odds with each other from the moment they stepped on board, suffered damage due to Pollard’s inexperienced handling of the ship during a storm. Chase encourages Pollard to return to port, but he refuses due to the demands of commerce. They needed to get whale oil.
Not finding any whales nearby, they sail far off the coast of South America where a pod of whales is rumored to be. Oh, they are there all right, but so is their seeming protector. As the whalers go after the majestic creatures, the big white whale makes its appearance, wreaking havoc on the small dinghies and freaking out the whole crew. Undaunted, they continue their work until the big guy smashes into the Essex, giving her a hole below the water line. Then with one flick of its tail, the ship becomes kindling. The rest of the movie becomes a survival story not unlike last year’s Unbroken.
Kudos to the Cast
The film benefits from creditable performances from Hemsworth, Gleeson, Whishaw, Tom Holland (the young Nickerson), and Cillian Murphy (2nd Mate Joy). When the Essex goes down, the 90-day survival on the ocean weighs the film down but the cast manages to buoy it up again. Walker and Hemsworth keep the crew afloat, as well, learning to respect each other and finally working together for the survival of the crew. Holland, playing the youngest member of the crew is convincing as the cabin boy who eventually relates the whole tale.
Confession is good for the soul
The whole movie is really one long confession. Burdened with the horrors he has seen, Nickerson has never shared the story of the Essex with anyone, not even his loving wife (Michelle Fairley). When Melville knocks on his door, Mrs. Nickerson encourages her husband to lay his burden down. He does. He confesses the horror of killing such magnificent creatures, of being made to actually go inside the slain whale to fetch all the oil possible, of having to eat his own deceased crewmate in order to survive the shipwreck. He’s been plagued with guilt all his life and thought that if people knew what he had done, he wouldn’t be loveable. His wife assures him, like the Father welcoming the prodigal son into his arms that she loves him unconditionally, no matter what his past held.
The truth will set you free
When Pollard and Chase make it back to Nantucket, there’s hell to pay. The ship owners won’t abide the ridiculous tale of a huge whale bent on sinking whaling ships. It would be bad for business. If the truth of the matter got out, they would be ruined, so they ask Pollard and Chase to lie at the inquiry hearing. “Tell them you ran aground,” they say. Chase will have none of it but Pollard is torn despite Chase’s urging him to speak the truth. He comes from a family with a long nautical history and the true story, as fantastic as it sounded, would spell ruin for the family name. The moral dilemma at hand: truth vs. profit.
In the Heart of the Sea chronicles well a fascinating era in American history. Thanks to the discovery of oil in the ground, we no longer kill whales for their oil. For a more environmental take on the film, click here for Sr. Rose’s review.