Heart in the wrong place12/16/2015
“In the Heart of the Sea,” the new film from director Ron Howard, suffers mightily from misplaced expectations. This is a shame, because at its core, the film’s story is good enough to be worth a viewing.
“In the Heart of the Sea” tells the true story of the Nantucket whaling ship “Essex,” which, in 1820, became the first confirmed incident of a ship being struck and sunk by a whale. The “Essex” crew escaped in three boats and spent the next 90 days adrift in the Pacific Ocean, 3,000 miles from the nearest European settlement. The story of the “Essex” became the stuff of legend and would eventually be the inspiration for Herman Melville’s great American epic, “Moby Dick.”
But therein lies the problem. The advertising for the film played up the “story that inspired “Moby Dick” aspect, which brought far too many people to the theater expecting to see a story that in some way resembled the story Melville would eventually write. But “Moby Dick” is fiction, and the only true inspiration that the “Essex” story gave Melville was the idea of a ship being sunk by a whale.
So “The Heart of the Sea” features very little of the action or adventure that Melville’s novel would come to be known for. Instead, what little action there is in the film is front loaded, shown while the “Essex” is still above water. There is one whaling sequence, and early on in the film the ship encounters a storm that results in one of the better shot sequences in the movie.
After the ship sinks, however, “In the Heart of the Sea” becomes a very different movie, as it focuses on the crew’s experiences adrift at sea, an ordeal from which only five of them would survive. Much of the film’s tension — and there is not much to be had — is pulled from the relationship between “Essex” captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth). Pollard was one of the youngest men to ever captain a Nantucket whaler, and his selection over the more experienced Chase to captain the “Essex” became a point of friction between the two, though the film makes more hay out of the experience than reality dictates.
Aside from not living up to the expectation generated by the “Moby Dick” association, “In the Heart of the Sea” does itself few favors with its pacing. Though beautifully shot, the film moves deliberately and nearly comes to a standstill in the second half. Anyone looking for an action/adventure epic is likely to be sorely disappointed. The pacing is also hindered by the film’s framing device, which is to keep intercutting scenes with the “Essex” crew with the story of Melville interviewing “Essex” cabin boy Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) about the event in 1849.
If you can look past the pacing, or at least go in prepared for it, there is plenty to enjoy about “In the Heart of the Sea.” The special effects are excellent, and Walker and Hemsworth offer compelling performances despite the latter giving the world one of the worst accents in recent film history.
But at the end of the day, none of that may be enough for most people. Ultimately, it seems likely that the things the film does well are likely to be overshadowed by the things it does not do at all, namely, provide audiences with anything that feels epic or in any way deserving of its connection to a great American novel. CV