Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip. “In the Heart of the Sea” is the true account of the ill-fated “Essex,” that inspired the American classic, “Moby-Dick.” Author Herman Melville fictionalized the account, but author Nathaniel Philbrick’s novel (2000) captures the story based on interviews and documental research.
“Call me Ishmael.” Those words might be the same to merchant marines as “Shiver me timbers.” The whale of a story was written in 1851, but as it turns out, the “Essex” sank off the coast of South America in 1820 by a monstrous whale and left 20 sailors stranded in lifeboats for three months, where some died and a few eventually rescued.
As cathartic relief, former cabin boy Thomas Nickerson recalls, “The tragedy of the Essex is the story of men – and a demon.” Melville (Ben Whishaw) interviews aging and reluctant Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) to tell the story he had never before told. The crew was pushed to their limits, braving storms, starvation, panic and despair. It called into question their deepest beliefs as they were forced to do the unthinkable to survive.
At one time, many men were drawn to the romance of the sea. Songs were written and stories told about maritime myths and adventures. The audience is taken aboard a working whaling ship where sailors would leave home for years at a time to bring home a cargo of precious whale oil. Today, other than hanging out on the Lido Deck of a luxury cruise line for a few days, not many seek such exploits.
Chris Hemsworth (“Thor”) as Owen Chase, and Benjamin Walker (“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”) as George Pollard, star, respectively as the mate, a mighty sailing man and skipper, brave and sure. Hemsworth, better known for his mythological physique, implements his abundant acting gravitas in this dark and desperate period piece.
Given the topic, our expectations were low, but found the film gripping and compelling. Director Ron Howard effectively presents an appreciation for the endless toil, stark loneliness and pervasive danger so many faced for the sake of their vocation. The CGI whales and storms are remarkable, but the tension and guarded truce between the experienced First Mate and rookie Captain, dressed like Captain Crunch; is absorbing.
There had to be a better way to make a buck. Think about sailing from your Nantucket home on a wooden ship. Sail south for six months, then around the tip of South America, and up the western coast of that continent. After all that, having found little of your hopeful cargo, in Ecuador you hear about an abundance of whales 2,500 miles due West, out to sea. In the midst is a monstrous white whale with a mean streak and sense of vengeance. What do you do, other than sing, “Nearer, My God to Thee?”
Ron Howard is an “old salt” at directing films based on true stories, including “Apollo 13,” “A Beautiful Mind” and “Frost/Nixon.” Some shooting took place in the Canary Islands, which coincidentally was the filming site for John Huston’s “Moby Dick” (1956), with a Ray Bradbury screenplay. Another curious coincidence is the survivors’ attempt to reach Mas a Tierra Island, which was the same island Alexander Selkirk was stranded on 100 years earlier. His story is said to be the basis for the classic, “Robinson Crusoe.”
“In the Heart of the Sea” is two hours and rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action, peril and violence. Although some creative license is taken, the film and novel align very closely to the story of the calamitous “Essex.” The film is done so well, it might ironically inspire today’s generation to actually read “Moby-Dick.”
When we think of that classic novel, this film is what is sometimes called, “the rest of the story.” Howard is a meticulous filmmaker delivering an impressive seafaring adventure. No, there’s no tiger on the lifeboat and nobody exclaims, “We gotta get a bigger boat!” But, when sailors spot the whales, they shout, “Thar’ she blows!” Landlubbers may think that’s water shooting from their spouts, but “itsnot.”
Ron’s Rating: B Leigh’s Rating: B