Director: Ron Howard
Writer: Charles Leavitt
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland, Frank Dillane, Joseph Mawie, Gary Beadle, Charlotte Riley, Donald Sumpter, Richard Bremmer, Jordi Molla, Michelle Fairley, Ben Whishaw, and Brendan Gleeson
Synopsis: Based on the 1820 event, a whaling ship is preyed upon by a giant whale, stranding its crew at sea for 90 days, thousands of miles from home.
*Reviewer Note: This will be a spoiler free review.*
Based on the book by Nathaniel Philbrick of the same name, Ron Howard takes the books basic premise about the whaling ship Essex in the 1820s that goes out to sea and encounters a massive whale that leaves some of the crew stranding at sea for 90 days and leaving them to fight for their lives against the elements, each other, and the massive whale that inspired Herman Melville’s classic epic Moby Dick. Now, the film – despite the ads – In the Heart of the Sea is not a film about Moby Dick, it’s about the inspiration behind Moby Dick. It’s also not so much about the whale itself, its more about the crew as they survive. So does In the Heart of the Sea stay aloft or does it sink hard? Well, it’s a give and take relationship.
The film has a nifty framing device as it starts in 1850 when author Herman Melville (Whishaw) goes to speak with Thomas Nickerson (Gleeson), the last living survivor of the Essex, to hear the story – which has become a somewhat myth and tale – of the Essex so that he can write his new book. Thomas is reluctant at first, but with a push from his wife (Fairley) he tells Melville the story. We then flashback to the 1820s and the focus changes to Owen Chase (Hemsworth), an experienced whaler who is eager to get his own ship, but has to serve as First Mate to Captain George Pollard (Walker), who is the son of a prestigious whaling family. Both men are eager to prove themselves and but their conflicting personalities and backgrounds have to be put to the side as their ship is attacked by a whale that they have never seen before. Left shipwrecked, the crew have to resort to anything they can to survive.
In the Heart of the Sea is really more of a film about survivor, and what you are willing to do to survive. For those hoping for a big whale versus ship film will be slightly disappointed. Sure there is some great stuff with the giant whale, especially the much promoted attack of the ship, but after that the whale pops up only a few times after that. The story of survivor is essentially what this film is really about, and it’s a mixed bag. You definitely feel and see the despair of the crew that include Matthew Joy (Murphy), who happens to be Chase’s long time friend, young Thomas (Holland), Henry Coffin (Dillane), who is Pollard’s cousin, William Bond (Beadle), and Benjamin Lawrence (Mawle), among a few others.
The problem is we don’t get to know too much about them as the primary focus in on Chase, Pollard and Thomas. Joy gets an interesting subplot, but it doesn’t really go anywhere in the film which is a shame because Murphy is always great in anything he tackles. Young Thomas has some great moments, but the older version played by Gleeson is much more developed and well-rounded character. In fact, the only real characters we really get to know are Gleeson’s Thomas and Ben Whishaw’s Herman Melville. Anytime the two are onscreen they are remarkable, and arguably the best scenes in the film are their scenes, including one that happens after the two reveal to each other their “secrets.” It’s a rather powerful scene that really puts things in perspective.
However, the only thing that bothered me but at the same time I can see why they wouldn’t show it, is when Thomas does reveal what they had to do in order to survive. It isn’t heavily hinted at, the audience knows what they did, but it never takes that extra step and shows it. I’m not saying the film isn’t good because they didn’t show the action, but if you’re going to go there, maybe show it, or at least part of it. Gleeson and Whishaw’s performance are great when they reach that point, but for a film to drive – or sail in this case – to this point and not really show is a bit underwhelming.
The rest of the cast fares well too with Hemsworth proving he can be more than just the God of Thunder, and Benjamin Walker has a great moment to shine in the latter half of the film. Tom Holland – future Peter Parker/Spider-Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – also has his moments, but again, Gleeson’s Thomas is much more developed.
All in all, In the Heart of the Sea has its big moments that work, but also has some parts that fall really flat that hurt the momentum going in. Whishaw and Gleeson help make the film more worthwhile and Chris Hemsworth with Cillian Murphy give great performances and bring the dread and lose of faith within the open sea.
In the Heart of the Sea
3.5 out of 5