IN THE HEART OF THE SEA
Director: Ron Howard
Screenwriter: Charles Leavitt based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s novel - In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex
Runtime: 122 mins.
Australian release date: 3 December 2015
Based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s award-winning book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea looks at the story behind the story of Herman Melville’s great work Moby Dick. And, lo and behold, turns out there is more than a grain of truth in that epic yarn.
The Essex, an American whale ship from Nantucket, Massachusetts, sank after it was attacked by a sperm whale in the Pacific Ocean in November 1820. The surviving crew drifted in whaleboats for months, hoping to reach the shores of South America but, by the time they were rescued in February 1821 there were very few survivors. One of them was a cabin boy named Thomas Nickerson who, when in old age, wrote down his account of what happened in those horrific weeks adrift and it is his story that Philbrick and Ron Howard have relied on to tell the tale.
Employing a bit of poetic license, Howard begins his film by using the device of Melville (Ben Whishaw) interviewing a reluctant Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), so that we see his story in flashback as it is revealed to the author. There is no documented evidence that such a meeting ever took place but it serves the film well, opening up the enclosed, claustrophobic confines of Nickerson’s Nantucket cottage to the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. And so we meet Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), a whaler who has been promised his own ship but who is disappointed to learn that he must make one more journey as first officer in order to shepherd the inexperienced scion of a wealthy whaling family through his captaincy. We also encounter the young Thomas Nickerson, now played by Tom Holland, who is taken under the wing of Chase. The journey is a difficult one and the Essex travels further and further afield, eventually rounding Cape Horn and entering the Pacific. It is in Peru as they restock the ship that they first hear the fateful tale of a huge bull whale and his pod of accompanying females. They also learn that the beast is vengeful and has attacked other vessels but, undeterred, they set of in pursuit of the massive catch. It’s no surprise to reveal that they get more than they bargained for!
As you’d expect of a big budget Ron Howard movie, the production values are superb. It’s never easy shooting action scenes on a real ship at sea (after the interiors were filmed in England the crew relocated to the Canary Islands for the exteriors), but the Oscar-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle was up to the task and his camera takes you into the heart of the action. Obviously in a shoot like this there’s going to be a great number of computer-generated scenes, too, but to the editors’ credit (Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill) these are seamlessly conjoined with Dod Mantle’s live footage, making a coherent and attractive whole. The performances are all solid, especially from those cast as the crew members adrift in the whale boats. Hemsworth has told how, for the sake of authenticity, they were limited to a diet of between 500 and 600 calories a day so that they would be sufficiently emaciated. It’s probably a good thing they didn’t have to remember too many lines for these scenes!
In summary, In the Heart of the Sea is a good-looking, well-executed movie that may not be one of Howard’s best but is still way ahead of the pack when it comes to ripping yarns. Would it be drawing too long a bow to suggest that the film may be Howard’s and scriptwriter Charles Leavitt’s comment on the dying days of the fossil fuel industry? The point is clearly made in the film that it was whale oil that powered the energy industry of the period, yet today we frown upon the slaughtering of these giant beasts. Will we one day look back at our use of oil, coal and gas in the same way?