A mere few leagues back into 2015, we were given The Walk, Robert Zemeckis dramatic re-telling of the Twin towers wire-walking after a previous, more factual based documentary had already been told. It had its merits and enjoyment but ultimately suffered by being inferior to its more straight-talking counterpart. Now,in December with In the Heart of the Sea, we have kind of a reversal as it tells the non-fiction factual accounts of the whaling voyage that inspired the classic fictional novel, Moby Dick. Although it in itself is still a fictional adaptation of its source material, In the Heart of the Sea also finds itself reversing The Walk’s problem; sadly it just can’t carry the impact of its fictional counterpart and overall delivers characters that are surprisingly difficult to invest in.
As an old man, Thomas Nickerson (Brendon Gleeson – Harry Potter, Edge of Tomorrow) tells the writer Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw – James Bond, Suffragette) of being a 14-year-old cabin boy (Tom Holland – The Impossible, Wolf Hall) during the voyage and ruin of the whaling ship, The Essex. It’s downfall under the command of inexperienced highborn Captain, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker – Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) and the experienced lower born 1st mate, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth – Thor, Rush).
There are a lot of good ideas floating about throughout In the Heart of the Sea but it ultimately harpoons itself being indecisive about whether its tone lies in fact or fantasy. The giant whale elements of the story are substantially overplayed on screen than in the source material to the extent that they detract the focus from the human story over the sailor’s survival. The film invests its biggest dramatic stakes in the fate of its crew and the extremes they must endure to stay alive, yet all too often rips us away from them for another CG big whale sequence/attack. These big white scenes are still visually impressive and like many of the prior whaling sequences are enhanced well by the element of 3D. It’s almost like there’s a period action film trying to break out here and it’s more successful than it should be. Neither the dramatic or action elements are bad in isolation but they just seem to cancel each other out. There are many moments when you’ll be thrilled or moved by what you’re seeing, yet as credits roll, and it all compiles together, the result feels a less satisfying sum of its parts. Although it does have one common ground that unites the vessel, and that is the camerawork. From start to finish, the film is incredibly well shot in the hands of Oscar winning D.O.P. Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire). He frequently makes great use of sea level perspectives to capture the nautical conditions or the similar implication of whale mounted cameras during the harpooning sequences.
In the dramatic context, the most enjoyable part of the film is the storytelling of older Thomas by Bredon Gleeson; thanks to a great turn from Gleeson, we really feel his emotional journey. The decades of guilt and bitter repression over the worst of the events, combined with the release and even self-forgiveness he finds in finally telling someone else. There’s even some great moments in the final act between Thomas and writer Hermen about choosing to make his book fictional, inspired by the events upon understanding that some of its truths deserve to stay hidden. Less effective is the bitter and conflicted relationship between Captain and First Mate. Their first half disagreements are very stereotypical of an experienced subordinate being frustrated with a pompous superior. Both Walker and Hemsworth are putting the effort in but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before and often a lot better. While their eventual reconciliation feels a natural product of their predicament, it’s delivered with far too minimal an impact with a brief campfire bro down. The early 19th century whaling industry is showcased well. Director Ron Howard (Willow, Rush) resists the urge to dive headlong into modern anti-whaling mindset (though a good few shots do highlight the brutality). Instead, he portrays its comparison to the arguably even more cutthroat modern oil/petroleum industry; Before the days of crude oil drilling, whale oil was the world’s fuel addiction and thus spawned such acts of ocean baring insanity.
In terms of crew reports, the black spot goes to Benjamin Walker as the Captain for being too “middle of the road”. He doesn’t sell us hard enough on his early follies to make his redemption feel worthwhile. The resident Thunder God fairs far better. Hemsworth works a relatable protagonist even if his early family scenes are less than smooth sailing. Gleeson’s old Tom is the clear standout performance with a good hand from Michelle Fairley (Game of Thrones' Catelyn Stark) as his wife. Many watchful eyes will be on Tom “the new Spider-Man” Holland in his first big screen appearance since his Marvel casting, but he handles himself well to provide the vital young/new guy perspective of whaling ship life. At times, he even brings in some good laughs in less expected areas, which bodes very well for taking on Peter Parker. Elsewhere, Cillian Murphy (Sunshine, Peaky Blinders) does the job of being the grounded 2nd mate between the opposing 1st and Captain but his performance feels sadly restricted, like we’re being denied his best to let others shine. The same applies for Fear the Walking Dead’s Frank Dillaine who sees the wind spill from his sails.
So what we have from In the Heart of the Sea is an ocean baring battle between style and content with neither achieving a clear victory for taking too much damage. Fans of Nathaniel Philbrick’s book will likely be disappointed for the alterations and heavy omissions. Casual fans intrigued by the Moby Dick connection won’t fair too much better because it takes away more entertainment from many of its feature length adaptations (check out the 1998 TV mini-series with Patrick Stewart as Captain Ahab) than it adds in with shipwreck and cannibalism elements. In the Heart of the Sea sailed in with a hold bursting with promise only to come a foul as it reaches our shores. It doesn’t deserve a full court-martial but it’s certainly not worthy of promotion.
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