Novelist Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) travels to Nantucket, Massachusetts to interview Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the last survivor of the whaling ship The Essex which, to all intents and purposes, ran aground many years earlier. Melville suspects that there was more to the story than the inquiry told and, over the course of a long night and several glasses of whiskey, Nickerson finally recounts the tale he has never told anyone, the tale that would go on to inspire the classic novel Moby Dick.
There have been many cinematic tellings of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, but Ron Howard’s latest film turns its attention to the true story that inspired the novel; the one that was only verified as true from his diary of the events, in 1980.
Brendan Gleeson plays Tom Nickerson the older, and the pain of the story he tells through the course of the film is etched across his face. Ben Whishaw brings tact and tenacity to the role of Melville, Chris Hemsworth re-teams with Rush director Ron Howard to play a character who is determined and consumed with the trappings of power and wealth. That said, Benjamin Walker as captain of The Essex, George Pollard, makes his character arrogant and obsessive, without the charm of Hemsworth’s Owen Chase. The rest of the cast is made up of Cillian Murphy, Michelle Fairley, Paul Anderson and Tom Holland as the young Tom Nickerson.
Charles Leavitt’s screenplay, based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s book ‘In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex’ is careful in its telling of this whaling tale. The audience already knows that whaling is barbaric and cruel, so the screenplay feels no need to labour this point, other than in the brutal and graphic scene involving a whale being butchered after it was killed. In fact, it could be argued that the whale that targets and destroys The Essex is the hero of the film. Elsewhere, the film is truly a story of greed taking down those that pursued wealth, and some pretty horrific choices that stay with the survivors for life.
Director Ron Howard makes In the Heart of the Sea a survival tale and a coming of age tale all at the same time. The action is exhilarating, fast paced and a lesson in creating tension on screen, but things lose their way a little once the ship is wrecked and the crew stranded. The pacing slows as the crew struggle to survive and, with so much time given to this element of the story, the film goes from action adventure flick to something more akin to The Life of Pi or the middle of Unbroken.
In all, however, In The Heart of the Sea is a thrilling adventure movie for the most part, with Nickerson the Elder and Melville anchoring the story emotionally and in terms of the story. There are times when the pacing struggles, and some of the characters are drawn a little too thin, but there is plenty to enjoy in In The Heart of the Sea, just not all of it is pleasant.