In the Heart of the Sea tells the tale that inspired the American epic, Moby Dick. Herman Melville (played by Ben Whishaw) visits an elderly Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) who recounts the story of the doomed Whaling ship Essex, on which he sailed as a 14 year old boy (his young self is played by Tom Holland). This relayed narrative becomes the main event with a slightly jarring switch from Thomas, to the events of first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) and his experiences of the shipwreck of the Essex after an encounter with a massive, albino sperm whale.
With a roster of films such as Apollo 13, Frost/Nixon and A Beautiful Mind included in his incredibly noteworthy filmography, there will always be high expectations for Ron Howard’s latest blockbuster, most of which, unfortunately, will not quite be met with his latest endeavour. There are many positives to take out of this film however. It certainly is epic in its scope. It attempts to recreate the danger felt when faced with a monster of this calibre and does so with remarkable aplomb. There are definitely moments within the film whereby you really get drawn in to the big set pieces, dutifully assisted by some remarkable CGI and a fantastic, evocative score. However, when it boils down to the core of the film, it doesn’t feel like it provides much more than some pretty visuals and some generic, albeit exciting, action scenes. Following the story of Owen Chase (ignoring the fact that some scenes could not possibly have been witnessed and retold by Nickerson), we never get a true sense of whaling as a profession. We follow a nautical outcast, a man who was ‘orphaned by his father’s incarceration’ and has to deal with not being born into a well-known whaling family. He is written as a fairly one-dimensional stereotypical ‘American Hero’ (think Chris Pratt in Jurassic World) with little development, beyond his relationship with the Essex’s captain, George Pollard.
The tale told (expertly) by Gleeson’s Nickerson may be the film’s primary narrative device, however it is the impact that we see it have on his character and the unfolding of his ‘confessions’ to Melville and also his wife (played by Michelle Fairley) that provide some of the most interesting and engaging scenes in the whole film. Gleeson’s performance is a true standout and the arc of his character is truly masterful. It’s just a shame that the rest of the film, although not unenjoyable to watch, doesn’t seem to provide on as much of a meaningful level. It does touch on some fairly unpleasant issues somewhat bluntly, yet with a hint of delicacy alongside.
A decent, enjoyable watch, Howard certainly provides a film epic in scope, yet due to an overabundance of somewhat distracting CGI and a critical lack of depth, this film falls fairly short of some of his previous works. However, it may still be worth a look for a rainy Sunday afternoon.
Image: Warner Bros. Pictures