Director Ron Howard’s, “In the Heart of the Sea” is based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s best-selling novel, “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex”, which won the National Book Award for non-fiction in the year 2000. It is a survival tale of men stranded at sea.
The dramatic story is about the final expedition of the Nantucket-based whaling ship Essex, which was assaulted by something no one could believe — a sperm whale of mammoth size and whose determined will was akin to the human sense of vengeance.
Bookending the narration of the film are pivotal sequences which inspired the legend immortalised by Herman Melville’s fiction, “Moby Dick”. But that book told only half the story.
The film begins in 1850, with Melville (Ben Whishaw) visiting Nantucket to interview the adult Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), a survivor of the ill-fated ship and now a truculent inn-keeper.
Nickerson tells him, “The tragedy of the Essex is the story of two men; Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and his first mate, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth).”
The narration harkens to 1819 revealing the twenty crewsmen’s harrowing experience as they are pushed to their limits and forced to do the unthinkable, to stay alive. Braving storms, starvation, panic and despair, the men face it all and even question their deepest beliefs, from the value of their lives to the morality of their trade.
The screenplay, co-scripted by Charles Leavitt, Rick Jaffa and Amanda, holds your attention with its natural plot graph that first steps from man against man conflict, which shifts gear to man versus monster, later buoys on man versus nature, and lastly settles on man versus self conflicts. But it fails to deliver as an adventure or as a philosophical film.
On the performance front, Chris Hemsworth as the brawny hands-on leader dominates the screen. He is charismatic, confident and charming. On the other hand, Benjamin Walker with his aristocratic air fits the bill as the “privileged,” arrogant and inexperienced Captain George Pollard. He delivers his performance with equal determination.
They are ably supported by Cillian Murphy as the reliable second mate Mathey Joy who acts as the balancing figure in the otherwise volatile situation, Whishaw as the novelist Herman Melville whose enquiries help the story to resurface and Brendan Gleeson, as the older Nickerson whose narration reveals the metaphysical aspect of the tale. They, in their one-dimensional roles, leave an indelible mark in the narration.
There is something alluring about Tom Holland who plays the young Nickerson. It’s probably the sincerity he lends to his character, which makes you feel sorry for him when he is forced down into the belly of the whale to bail out the fat.
The rest of the cast is natural and relatable. Their physical transformation from able-bodied sailors to mere survivors in skin and bones is worth a mention.
With excellent production values, the film transports you to the era of the 19th century. Visually, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle’s frames are like canvas paintings, which seamlessly mesh with the lifelike computer generated images.
Don’t miss the trials and tribulations of these seamen. This film is definitely worth a watch.