Get your best faux-Nantucket accent ready, put on your favourite naval costume and sharpen your harpoon as Thor goes head to head with whales in this review of In the Heart of the Sea.
Even if you have never read Herman Melville’s tale (I am currently about half way through it after six months of trying…) you will know the general gist of Moby Dick. It’s a classic story of vengeance and obsession that sees Captain Ahab hunting the titular white whale that destroyed his ship and took his arm. In the Heart of the Sea claims to be based on the true story that Moby Dick itself was inspired by. The film opens on Herman Melville, played by Ben Whishaw, coming to the door of the last survivor of the lost whaling ship, Essex. Thomas Nickerson, played by Brendan Gleeson, at first refuses, but finally acquiesces and starts to tell the story of what happened to that ship, whose fate has been shrouded in mystery ever since it disappeared in 1820. The film then bounces back and forth between Nickerson’s youth as a fourteen year old boy on the ship Essex and his telling this tale as a forty-four year old man in the “now” of 1850. The present is focussed on the difficulties these memories have caused Nickerson in the years since that voyage, whilst the past is focussed on the horrors that befell the Essex and her crew when they were attacked by a white whale whilst hunting its’ kin in the middle of the Pacific.
The first problem this film runs into is that it doesn’t seem to be able to decide which side of the two stories it is telling is more important. Although the bulk of the run time appears to be filled with scenes from the younger-Nickerson, ably played by the soon-to-be Spiderman; Tom Holland, the movie keeps jumping back to the “present” to the elder-Nickerson recounting the tale. I’m not sure if they were hoping to show how much his experiences on the Essex had damaged him, but as that was set up in the opening scene the only thing it does is to break up the flow of the movie and make it feel increasingly episodic. This is especially true as these breaks often cover several months of “ship time” where nothing particularly action-packed was happening, but you are lead to understand that tensions onboard have ratcheted ever higher. Unfortunately, not having actually seen evidence of this happening this device often falls flat and more than once left me feeling quite let down that I had missed what promised to be some of the more interesting character beats that were meant to have occurred during those lost months.
The second, and possibly most glaring, issue that the film faces is that it is ostensibly about Thomas Nickerson, which is odd as literally the whole film, outside of the framing scenes in 1850, is a vehicle for Thor-star Chris Hemsworth, who headlines the movie as the experienced and gruff First Mate; Owen Chase. The choice to frame the movie as the memories of Thomas Nickerson becomes increasingly confusing as we are not even introduced to his younger self until a good twenty minutes into the movie. This issue is compounded by the fact that tonally the movie veers from one style of film making to another with no real rhyme or reason throughout. The scenes in 1850 feel like a script-driven costume drama, some of the 1820’s scenes are action movie through and through, some are more thriller in nature and then we have ones that appear to be a cogitation on the meaning of existence. None of them seem to have any stylistic or narrative through-line other than the same characters turn up. When combined with the jumping back and forth with elder-Nickerson’s narration the movie starts to feel very disjointed. In fact, I regularly found myself wondering if the framing scenes of the elder-Nickerson were added after having filmed the entirety of the rest of the movie from the view point of Chase? I think that the best way to sum up the feeling this left me with is to quote the beginning of Wikipedia’s entry on this movie (not my normal stop for film reviews, but in this case remarkably apt), where the film is described as an “American biographical, action-adventure, fantasy, thriller-drama”!
And so we come to the film’s third major problem; there are very few moments where the characters are ever shown as more than two dimensional sets of clichéd character traits. In the 1850’s scenes, Herman Melville is a man desperate to find a story worthy of telling, whereas the elder-Nickerson is a man desperate to escape his past and so the two battle it out as one tries to drag information out of the unwilling other. The 1820’s scenes also lack depth as the younger-Nickerson is just a new boy on the ship who observes the whole film with a wide-eyed wonder and the real meat of the story is clearly meant to be that Hemsworth’s Chase is an experienced whaler who has a chip on his shoulder because he is passed over for command because of his family’s lack of standing in Nantucket. Enter Benjamin Walker’s Captain Pollard, who is the young, inexperienced man who is dropped into command without really knowing what he is doing and tries to take risks in order to outdo the more experienced Chase and prove his worthiness for the post. This leads to the two men becoming increasingly at loggerheads, which affects the morale and safety of the crew. This should lead to some interesting storylines, but the tension between the two, although earnestly played by both Hemsworth and Walker, never really feels like it really goes deeper than what the script says they should be doing. Considering that the film hinges on this relationship, this is a real waste. Outside of the main two characters we have the crew of the Essex and the white whale that turns on them. There are some fine actors in the cast, the best of whom is the ever-brilliant Cillian Murphy, but since you never really get the feeling that any of the main characters are actually in peril the rest of the crew become little more than whaling versions of Star Trek’s Red Shirts. Sadly, because we are never really given time to get to know them it is quite hard to care about their demises. So we come to the white whale himself, who does a fair impression of a watery battering-ram. He was clearly intended to have his own character and motives (see the “fantasy” tag above), but ends up falling squarely into the box of “CGI plot-device”. He turns up when the plot needs a change of direction and disappears with about as much explanation once his part is over. This is a pity, because, given more mystique he could have been the reason for Chase and Pollard to overcome their differences and unite in a single cause. As it is, all his random appearances serve little reason other than to add action scenes to the movie. Two dimensional characters and plot devices aside, there is also the unfortunate issue of accents. Most are, at best, variable. Hemsworth unfortunately is the main offender on this front. His Nantucket accent feels a little over-loud and quite forced, and it tends to drop back into his Thor-voice in times of high stress or excitement, but he is far from the only offender as many of the cast have a range of voices on display depending on what was happening in that particular scene.
I should say that, outside of the accents, most of the problems above lie with the script and not with the performances. Everyone is clearly trying their hardest to make their characters resonate, but the overly obvious beats of the plot, lack of character development and odd story choices hamstring their best efforts. For example, one of the scripts major crimes is the fact that it keeps trying to portray the characters as heroic, but they are out trying to kill as many whales as possible for profit, which is not acceptable to most audiences nowadays. These men should not be seen as heroes, but people who have learned a trade, are good at it and just get on with the job in hand. The interest for the audience should be in their foibles and interactions, and we should look up to them if they deserve it, not because we are clearly supposed by the way a scene is filmed. This particular problem became especially noticeable when I found myself feeling quite upset by the barbarism of the techniques used during the one whale-hunt we are shown. I had not expected to enjoy these sections as this is, after all, a period piece about whale-hunting, hardly the most gentle of jobs! Unfortunately the script inexplicably demands that the characters show guilt or ennui for the killing of one of these great beasts. I found the attempt to cram some modern disapproval of this profession quite jarring and ultimately very clumsy, especially since prior to that the scene was filled with excitement and blood-lust and immediately afterwards the crew are shown celebrating the profits that this kill will bring them.
My final complaint is that I can only describe the majority of the effects shots in this film as ropey. This is a film where Ron Howard’s direction is often truly beautiful to behold, even if he does seem fond of letting out of focus ropes and rigging get into a lot of the foreground of his shots whilst on the Essex. Sadly the effects seem to change tone and consistency as much as the plot itself, with every different camera angle showcasing a different quality of CGI. For example, the backgrounds of 1820’s Nantucket look impressively like an oil painting, but once the film moves out to sea the effects struggle, and in most cases fail, to look photo-real. I think that keeping the oil-painting feel throughout the movie would not only have alleviated a lot of the worst problems with the movie’s tone by providing some much needed consistency, but it would also have meant that difficult to simulate things like splashes, waves and whales could have been glossed over with stylistic choices. Surprisingly, there is also some very obvious green-screen work going on when the actors take to the whaling dinghies to chase their prey or a storm strikes their ship. This is a shame, as when the film takes place on what is obviously a real ship on a real sea it looks gorgeous. As soon as the effects step in it starts to feel like cheap rear-projection scenes on TV. This overall lack of quality is odd considering that this movie was made for virtually the same amount as The Life of Pi, which featured very similar effects shots in much greater quantity and they looked spectacular. I can only put this down to some sort of rush to get the movie out in time for the Christmas period, as a lot of the shots could be considered unfinished by modern standards. Thankfully the same cannot be said of the sets, costumes or make-up, all of which are rich, detailed and lend the shots without CGI a feeling of being very weighty and real to life.
So, ultimately we are left with a very pretty film, with a great cast doing the best they can (accents aside) with a clunky script, poor special effects and a plot that cannot decide what sort of story it wants to be. Is it a costume drama focussed on the struggles of a man trying to relate the horrors of his formative years? Is it an action movie about a killer Sperm Whale? Is it a film about the struggles between two men who have either experience or class on their side? The honest answer is that I’m not sure and I cannot recommend that you go and try and find out for yourself.
Two Moons out of Five. Not very good.