In the Heart of the Sea

December 4, 2015
Chris Hemsworth in 'In the Heart of the Sea' (2015)
Chris Hemsworth in 'In the Heart of the Sea' (2015)

Ron Howard is the kind of old-fashioned director Hollywood loves. He is happy to work with trash such as The Da Vinci Code (2006), but able to rise to the occasion when given a more challenging assignment such as Apollo 13 (1995) or Frost/Nixon (2008). The skill is to make the trash seem a little better than expected, and to leaven the so-called ‘serious’ jobs with enough dramatic music and terse dialogue to let us know we are watching a popular entertainment, not an arthouse special.

Rush (2013) was exemplary in this respect, as a car racing film that became a battle of wills between two strong personalities, James Hunt and Niki Lauder. In the Heart of the Sea brings back Chris Hemsworth in another alpha male role, as Owen Chase, first mate of the Essex, the ill-fated vessel that would serve as the inspiration for Melville’s Moby Dick.

This time the fit is not quite right. Whatever qualities the chiselled Hemsworth brought to bear as dashing playboy, James Hunt, they are not appropriate for the character of Chase – an accomplished seaman rankling under the command of an inexperienced captain who has obtained his post through family connections, not ability.

It’s not Mutiny on the Bounty all over again, and Hemsworth is no Marlon Brando. In fact it’s a simplistic rendition of a potentially complex role. Hemsworth may look fabulous in his sailor gear, but he speaks in an accent that is beyond classification. It sounds like a gruff new dialect invented specially for the occasion.

The bulk of the movie is told in flashback. It begins with Ben Whishaw as Herman Melville, paying a visit to Nantucket to interview the last survivor of the Essex, Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson). In time-honoured fashion the elderly Nickerson doesn’t wish to reminisce about the ordeals he endured as a cabin boy, even though he has been haunted by the experience his entire life.

When he is finally persuaded to talk, he has quite a story. It begins with Owen Chase finding out that his hopes of captaining his own whaling vessel have been put aside in favour of one George Pollard, son of a local blueblood.

After much huffing and puffing, Chase agrees to serve as First Mate on the Essex, accompanied by his childhood friend, Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy), and a group of loyal comrades.

Hardly are they out into open waters when Captain Pollard makes a wrong call, exposing the ship to the full force of a storm. The tension between Pollard and Chase erupts into open hostility, tempered only by the need to fill the hold with valuable oil before returning home.

After one invigorating whale hunt, the voyage proves frustratingly barren. It is only when moored at a harbour on the coast of South America, that they hear of a remote area where the whales are plentiful. They choose to ignore the dark warnings of a Spanish captain who lost his boat in that region and can no longer return home.

The Essex sails bravely and recklessly into the heart of this whale playground, but the hunt goes wrong when they encounter a whale that fights back. The final part of the film finds the survivors adrift in longboats, with supplies running scarce. All those familiar moral dilemmas about the means and consequences of survival are played out, as the sailors spend 90 days floating helplessly on the waves.

There is not a moment when the story is anything but predictable. The very fact that it is a flashback tells us that Nickerson, at least, will survive. We know, not least from Moby Dick, that the sailors will be terrorised by an unusually intelligent and beligerent whale. We know the combination of Chase and Pollard spells trouble. It is a tragedy in which doom is decreed from day one.

Aside from the continual fascination of trying to figure out where Hemsworth got his accent, the movie holds us with the action sequences of the whale hunt, shown in all its brutality; and the special effects bonanza of a rampaging behemoth that sends the Essex to the bottom of the sea. One suspects this is the chief reason most people will see this film, rather than the literary references.

The personality clash between Chase and Pollard is not in the same class as the contest between Hunt and Lauder, in Rush. Both men are rendered inconsequential by the vengeful whale.

The most compelling issue may be the way audiences respond to the whale hunt in an era when whaling has become a political taboo. The recent footage of Japanese whalers in the Greenpeace documentary, How to Change the World, was thoroughly sickening. Howard’s make-believe whale hunting is just as bloodthirsty, although one can’t help but marvel at the courage of those men who chased whales in long boats, armed only with a hand-held harpoon. Indeed, one’s emotions tend to fluctuate, from being caught up in the excitement of the chase to feeling the horror of torn flesh and gushing blood.

The whalers were a class of men whose heroism has been diminished by our ecological sensitivities. Howard has given them their due in this adventure, while showing their foolishness of mere mortals entering into a contest with Nature. It takes a whale to push these voyagers to the utmost limits of what it means to be human.

In the Heart of the Sea
Directed by Ron Howard
Written by Charles Leavitt, Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver, after a book by Nathaniel Philbrick
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy, Benjamin Walker, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw, Tom Holland, Frank Dillane, Charlotte Riley
USA, rated M, 121 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 5th December, 2015.