Welcome to "Not quite Fantastique", where I use my blog space to review movies that don't quite fit into the Science Fiction, Fantasy, Comic Book, Horror and Action genre focus of the Screen Fantastique website. I take my commitments to reviewing movies seriously, despite my reviewing and this site being primarily for non-commercial purposes. I'm lucky to be invited by local film distributors to so many wonderful films and the blog space on my site is the best way to create a home for movies that I see and want to share my view with a broader audience (whoever may be reading; if anyone at all...) I hope you enjoy the reviews that I post here and they help to inform your movie-going choices.
IN THE HEART OF THE SEA - film review
IN THE HEART OF THE SEA is one of 2015’s more unusual mainstream film releases. It’s big budget, period drama with a cast of well known actors from Ron Howard, one of Hollywood’s better Directors. In spite of these positives, IN THE HEART OF THE SEA does not in any way fall into the category of “feelgood”. The film, based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s book, tells the story of the Whaleship Essex and its crew, whose encounter with a white whale in 1820 saw the ship destroyed and crew lost at sea for 90 days. Screenwriter Chris Leavitt takes the book’s most dramatic sequences and turns them into a reasonably tight story that is focussed more upon the characters than their encounter with the white whale. This proves to be a good move, as it becomes clear the longer the film plays, there’s only so much dramatic tension to be had from the encounter with the white whale.
The story is told in flashback, as young author Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) tracks down Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the last survivor of the Essex. Melville (who, in real life, would base MOBY DICK upon the story of the Essex) wants to find out the truth of the matter before there is no one left alive to recount what actually happened and whether the legend of the white whale is true. Nickerson is reluctant, but his wife (Michelle Fairley) forces him to recount the story in an effort to have her husband exorcise a lifetime of personal demons. Nickerson tells Melville that the story of Essex is really the story of two men, the ship’s Captain, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and the First Mate, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth). Pollard is a third generation whaler from Nantucket, whose family is well established and controls much of what happens in the town because of their whale oil interests. Chase is from the lower classes and has something of a chip on his shoulder about not being made a Captain of his own whaling vessel.
Pollard and Chase are reluctantly paired together aboard the Essex and it becomes clear that their differing approach to seamanship are incompatible. Early in their journey, Pollard nearly sinks the Essex with his determination to test the crew during a storm. The ship is badly damaged and Pollard contemplates returning to Nantucket, but Chase argues that it would be ill-advised to return to shore without a single barrel of the precious whale oil they have been charged to collect. Pollard relents, setting in motion a train of events that see the Essex head as far south as any ship ever in search of whales. Their search culminates in the discovery of the largest whale pod any of the men aboard the Essex has ever seen, but it comes with a terrible price, as they encounter a white whale who seems to possess an almost human-like desire for vengeance.
The first half of IN THE HEART OF THE SEA is all about the build-up to the encounter with the white whale and the Second Act culminates with the Essex under siege from the mighty beast. The final Act of the movie looks at the aftermath of the encounter and how men, regardless of their station, deal with adversity. The flashback narrative allows Ron Howard to frame each challenge of the final Act with an ongoing emotional commentary from Gleeson and Wishaw’s characters, as the crew of the Essex become more desperate and their ability just to exist becomes more compromised. The story becomes quite grim as the elements take their toll and several more encounters with the White whale result in serious injuries and death. Howard never succumbs to gratuity but the decisions the remaining crew of the Essex take to survive reduce them to the most basic level of humanity; forcing them into acts that fly in the face of Pollard’s Darwinistic view of his place in the world. The film comes out much more on the side of Chase, whose rugged, hands-on approach to life and appreciation of the world around him is an affirmation of the movie’s “Green” theme philosophy.
Despite the film’s attempts to examine both the young Nickerson (Tom Holland) and the older Nickerson’s painful survival story, IN THE HEART OF THE SEA never quite hits the nail on the head. It’s an extremely well made film and both leads (Hemsworth and Walker) turn in solid performances, as do Wishaw and Gleeson along with Cillian Murphy as Hemsworth brother-in-arms Matthew and young Frank Dillane as Pollard’s cousin Owen Coffin. Technically, the film is solid, although the editing by Howard’s regular team of Dan Hanley and Mike Hill is hard to follow during key sequences involving the Essex being battered, either by storms or white whales. The cuts feel too fast and it’s extremely difficult to follow the various characters as they fight for survival. IN THE HEART OF THE SEA is a film won’t make viewers feel as though they have been treated to an outstanding piece of cinema, but it may help to bring a greater level of understanding of a small sliver of history that helped to inspire one of the great novels in MOBY DICK.