In the Heart of the Sea
Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea takes its inspiration from the shipwreck story that reportedly inspired the Herman Melville novel Moby Dick.
The fate of the Essex was turned into a non fiction book in the year 2000. I imagine that this book is largely the source material for this film as the titles are identical but since I have never read it then I can’t say for certain. It doesn’t really matter as accuracy to the book doesn’t really alter how this works as a film.
In general it works pretty well but has some distinct flaws that prevent it from completely working as a survival story. The biggest issue I had with it is the pacing. It’s all over the place and takes far too long to get to the more interesting parts of the film. I’d have been more forgiving if the seemingly endless setup scenes were interesting but the characters are only developed on a really superficial level that makes it hard to be invested in them.
Chris Hemsworth’s Owen Chase takes the lead here and he does a capable job but the film more or less rides on his star power rather than doing anything meaningful with his character. I have been critical of Hemsworth’s acting in films that don’t feature him as Thor mostly because he struggles to put on different accents. This film is no exception in that regard. I had absolutely no idea where he was supposed to be from despite the film telling us on several occasions. Hemsworth is still really charismatic throughout but stops short of being believable possibly due to the fact that his character isn’t especially well written. Beyond being good at his job having a wife and child to get back to I’m struggling to think of anything else that defines him.
Other actors like Cillian Murphy and Benjamin Walker come and go throughout the film and don’t really leave that much of an impression. Cillian Murphy is always worth watching but a lack of meaningful screen time fails to allow him to capitalise on the potential that he has as an actor. I was enjoying the conflict between Walker’s George Pollard and Hemsworth’s chase as it went down the hard work vs. familial connections route and presented it well when it was on screen but the conflict wasn’t as well developed as it should have been.
Given that the film is built around Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) being told the story by an older Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) it would make more sense to have the story happen around the young Tom (Tom Holland). It does in some cases but he isn’t the centre of the story as he should be. Tom Holland was good here so he would have been more than up to the task and it would have been interesting to have the events happen outside of his control instead of him telling the story of events that he was nowhere near.
The framing device wasn’t used all that well as the story only returns to the film’s present day a couple of times to the point where I almost forgot that it was happening. There was one standout scene where Brendan Gleeson’s reaction to an atrocity that could never be shown made the horror of the situation as visceral as it needed to be. Brendan Gleeson is excellent in this film but plays a pretty familiar character type for him. He’s good at it so it’s impossible to dislike but it’s a shame that the framing scenes weren’t more prominent.
As a survival story some of it works and some of it doesn’t. Much of the film is set at sea and deals with some really heavy moral questions in a way that lands quite well but I wasn’t invested in the survival of most of the crew since I barely knew who they were. Having a large chunk of the film being a bunch of people wasting away in a boat is a tough sell but I was never bored by these scenes. Life of Pi did it far better but this wasn’t bad. Once the shipwreck happens the film is fairly well paced.
There are a number of set pieces that look really good with the highlight being the sinking of the Essex. I also liked the scenes of the crew going Whaling and any sequence that showed good old fashioned sailing was really well put together. The whale that inspires Moby Dick looked really cool and had an appropriate level of menace to the point that I wish there had been more of it.
On that point I wonder why Ron Howard didn’t just put together an adaptation of Moby Dick as there hasn’t been one in a while so it might have been good to see this story done with a high budget. Ron Howard certainly has the directing skill and the cinematography in this film shows how good that could look. In general this film mostly feels like a missed opportunity.