Wednesday, December 16, 2015

In the Heart of the Sea

IN THE HEART OF THE SEA (Ron Howard, 2015)

IN THE HEART OF THE SEA tells the story purported to have inspired Herman Melville’s MOBY-DICK. The author (Ben Whishaw) shows up in the film’s framing device as he interviews an old Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the last survivor of the 1820s tragedy when a whale destroyed the ship the Essex. In the flashback scenes Tom (Tom Holland) is a boy who finds work on a whaling vessel along with experience-challenged captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth).

IN THE HEART OF THE SEA has the basics for a rip-roaring adventure yarn with the chase for magnificent beasts of the ocean and fight for survival in dire circumstances, but director Ron Howard and screenwriter Charles Leavitt are not able to locate a center for this incredible story. Although Tom is speaking with Melville, Hemsworth’s brawny sailor functions as the default main character, leaving the storyteller as a supporting player in his own life’s narrative. It’s likely why there’s a curious distance between the action and the emotional current. In his telling Tom doesn’t create much of an inner life for himself as a young man, let alone Owen or any of the various seamen aboard the Essex.

Howard demonstrates more interest in the day-to-day operation of whaling expedition. The most exciting sequence comes as the men capture and kill their first whale on the voyage. Howard pinpoints the dangers, from occupying tiny boats beside the enormous creatures to needing to allow for enough rope to a harpooned whale so it doesn’t drag them to their doom, and the disgusting reality of disassembling a whale into its saleable parts. It’s fascinating to observe what was required to succeed in this kind of living.

Toward the end IN THE HEART OF THE SEA strives to achieve meaning of some kind, but the attempt feels tacked on to a story that has never quite understood what or who it is about. The seafoam green visual palette, water level shots, and heavily scarred CGI whale add some verve to what is otherwise a frustrating account of tragedy.

Grade: C

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