“In the Heart of the Sea” was inspired by classic Melville...and a big whale
In the beginning chapter of “Moby Dick,” Melville discusses the call of the sea on all young men. “Why,” he asks, “did the poor poet of Tennessee, upon suddenly receiving two handfuls of silver, deliberate whether to buy him a coat, which he sadly needed, or invest his money in a pedestrian trip to Rockaway Beach?”
Today, he might wonder why poor college studenta might spend the last of their student loans to travel eight hours to Panama City for two days. The answer to both of these questions might very well be drinking on a beach, but Melville believed it was something deeper: All men are drawn to the deep waters to understand the mysteries of a seemingly endless expanse.
For men of Melville’s time, who had not yet discovered how to conquer the sky, the oceans of the world were eternally vast. There is something in the nature of man that yearns to stare into the abyss.
But as Billy Joel told us, many years later, there are giants out there in canyons, and good captains can fall asleep. Ron Howard’s latest film “In the Heart of the Sea,” tells the story of giant slayers.
The film is a frame story, a sailor’s tale recounted years later to Herman Melville himself. Melville (Ben Whishaw) has sought out Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) in the dead of night, hoping to hear what happened to the Essex,a whaling ship out of Nantucket that sank under mysterious circumstances in the Pacific in1820.
The Essex was a real ship and its fate was fairly well documented, but for the sake of the narrative and in order to add a hint of mystery, the filmmakers must take a certain amount of license. Nickerson is the last living survivor of the doomed ship and has become a bitter old innkeeper, a drunk cared for by a longsuffering wife. Melville offers him three months’ wages for the yarn. Given that the film is advertised as the story that inspired “Moby Dick,” an encounter with a dangerous marine animal is understood.
The performances in the film are by far the weakest part of it. Most distracting are the accents of the Massachusetts sailors. Chris Hemsworth, an Australian who plays First Mate Owen Chase, is by far the worst offender in this case. He makes a valiant effort, but he doesn’t appear to have an ear for it, and comes off sounding like the Asgardian god Thor trying to fit in at a Red Sox game.
Towards the beginning of the film, the accents of most of the actors are distracting—to the point that the dialogue is almost incomprehensible. The audience is forced to pay careful attention to every word, lest they be lost in a haze of long A’s and dropped R’s. Luckily for the film, not much time is spent on land.
Once the Essex is underway, however, the film loses whatever pretense it had of period acting and begins to tell an enthralling, visual account of the ill-fated ship and her crew. Tempers are high due to scarcity of the whales and an inexperienced captain. Greed and hunger for success are rampant, causing the leadership to make increasingly dangerous decisions. Once the film reaches its climax, audiences are likely to forget the poor acting for the sheer spectacle on screen.
“In the Heart of the Sea” is an absolutely beautiful film, one that is simultaneously old-fashioned and modern. It doesn’t appear to rely heavily on CGI, save for the sperm whale attack in question, which would likely have been a nightmare to film using practical effects. Whales are notoriously difficult to work with, what with their demand for large, seawater-filled trailers for themselves and their entourage. The budget for squid alone would be astronomical.
But I digress. At its core, “In the Heart of the Sea” is an effective sailor’s drama, full of salt and sea and cannibalism. It doesn’t quite touch on the immeasurable emptiness of the unknown, or man’s struggle to understand his place in the vast desert of existence, but that has been done before.
Herman Melville wrote a book about it, and if the film inspires anyone to read “Moby Dick,” then the world will be better for it.