In the Heart of the Sea

Scott Wallace
3rd Dec 2015

Though darkly philosophical and allegorical, Herman Melville’s Great American Novel Moby-Dick was in fact based on true events. Ron Howard’s latest film as director, In the Heart of the Sea, tells the story of the whaleship Essex and its unfortunate fate following its encounter with an enormous white whale in 1820 – the story upon which Melville’s novel was based.

Nathanial Philbrick’s 2000 non-fiction book of the same name provided the basis for the film, but the adaptation features a boyish Melville (Ben Whishaw) visiting the house of the Essex’s last surviving crew member Thomas Nickerson (played as an old man by Brendan Gleeson) and attempting to coax the traumatic story out of him. The flashback that follows is a sometimes illuminating, but ultimately unengaging story of high-stakes drama at sea.

Denied his rightful place as captain in favour of George Pollard Jr. (Benjamin Walker), a man of higher birth, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) takes up the role of First Mate on the Essex, with his longtime friend Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy) as second mate. Almost immediately, tensions arise between the Captain and First Mate, particularly when the former makes several near-fatal errors in judgement, but they are both driven by the desire to deliver an enormous bounty of whale oil back to Nantucket.

There is definitely something fascinating to see the workings of the ship and its crews, particularly when it comes to the slaughter of the whales, but In the Heart of the Sea lacks the requisite characterisation to really create a sense of drama. Of the main cast, only Cillian Murphy in his relatively small role really acts with any sincerity. The glowering Hemsworth woodenly speaks as if he is suffering from a hernia, and Benjamin Walker’s Captain Pollard is a near non-entity.

When the film becomes more ponderous in its second and third act, its pace slows to a crawl. It doesn’t help that the film is in 3D, and while the expansive ocean shots are beautiful to behold with the benefit of 3D technology, quieter scenes become distractingly cluttered, and action scenes that should have been tense just become frustratingly chaotic.

There is a message at the heart of the story about compassion, but by the end that message is just as muddled as the film’s visuals. In the Heart of the Sea is staged breathtakingly, particularly scenes involving the leviathan at the centre of the tale, but it falls short of its lofty aspirations because of an unengaging script, uneven visuals and lacklustre performances.

In the Heart of the Sea is in Australian cinemas from today.