I’ve never read Moby Dick. But, like, I get it. It’s about Captain Ahab and he’s obsessed with killing this white whale and his crew think he’s insane and it’s all an allegory for an unknowable god or something — depends on who you ask. Herman Melville’s 1851 novel became an epic bestseller and fell into the zeitgeist. But probably few people actually knew it was based on a real ship that really befell the horrors of a monstrous whale, floating adrift without food or water, and eventually descending into madness. I had no idea. Ron Howard’s new film about this story, In the Heart of the Sea, is something less epic, but perhaps more harrowing than the famous American novel.
The first thing to notice about the film is that every single actor with a speaking part (except one) is British, Irish, or Australian. This is important because all of them are playing folks from Nantucket, so they all affect hard mid-Atlantic or Bostonian accents. Chris Hemsworth perhaps has it the worst since he does the lion’s share of the talking. It proved so odd to me that such a cast would be assembled for this movie about Americans that I confess to being distracted for the better part of the first act. That the sound mix in the screening room was a little off as well didn’t help either. However, once the adventure took over, I didn’t mind too much.
Let’s get down to brass tacks. In the later 1840s, Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) visits an aged man (Brendan Gleeson) who seems to have a story to tell about the supposed grounding of the whaling ship Essex beyond the official account. Melville is obsessed with knowing the truth and eventually pays the man quite a bit for the story of when he was a 14-year-old ship’s hand. We’re told up front that this is the story of two men, the captain (Benjamin Walker), who has never captained a vessel before but comes from a good family name, and the first mate (Hemsworth), who is an able seaman but is perceived as a “landsman” by the stuck-up people of Nantucket. It’s together with a small crew that they set out to get a required 2,000 barrels of whale oil, which is used to light lamps all over the world.
There’s a lot early on in the movie about the two men not getting along at all, and it possibly leading to disaster, but eventually we get to the first whale-harpooning scene. Howard directs it heroically at first, but then when the gutting and oil-obtaining happens, it’s decidedly more disgusting and barbaric. I’m fascinated by having cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle — the man who shot things like 28 Days Later, Antichrist, and Dredd — shoot this movie because his past work keeps manifesting itself in short shots of fisheye lensed, handheld visceralness amid the usual big Hollywood look of a Ron Howard film.
Ultimately, the greed of the men leads them to uncharted waters near the equator as they continue to ignore stories of a monstrous white whale. This ultimately becomes their undoing as their ship is rammed, and they’re forced to fend for themselves on the high seas in three small boats. What’s perhaps most surprising from the advance marketing is that the whale stuff isn’t the bulk of the film. This isn’t Jaws despite the few unavoidable visual nods; the gargantuan creature is a bigger sperm whale than any of them have ever seen, and it may be a metaphor for the monster that pursues every prideful man. Or it could just be a big ol’ whale. While entertaining, full of interesting visuals, and ever-worsening conditions for the characters, the movie never really gelled for me in the way I think it was supposed to. There are not enough character moments between Hemsworth and Walker after setting up that they don’t like each other, though we do get plenty of Whishaw and Gleeson, and Michelle Fairley (Game of Thrones) as Gleeson’s wife.
In the Heart of the Sea is a solid survival adventure story that never goes much beyond that. There’s certainly less whale than you probably want, and those Massachusetts accents will rattle around in your ears for nearly as long as it would take you to read Moby Dick.