Towards the beginning of In the Heart of the Sea, we watch in disbelief as our protagonists sink a harpoon into a sperm whale, wait for it to surface, and then begin to relentlessly spear it like the Japanese dolphin cullers in The Cove while a mist of blood sprays out of the blowhole and adorns their faces.
Later, Chris Hemsworth’s character orders the crew’s smallest member (played by Tom Holland) to squeeze into the dead whale’s blowhole with a bucket to scrape out every last drop of precious oil.
These scenes are difficult to watch, and don’t exactly endear us to the film – let alone the characters that we’re supposed to be rooting for. But they feel realistic and authentic, and reminded me of some of the less-celebrated aspects of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, which describe in great detail the operations of a whaling vessel.
In the Heart of the Sea is the story behind the story of Melville’s classic novel, a conceit that rarely works in cinematic terms.
Not because the story of the American whaleship Essex isn’t a good one, as told in Nathaniel Philbrick’s novel In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, adapted for this film by Charles Leavitt (Seventh Son).
More because the film expends so much effort in trying to exploit the Moby Dick connection that a third of the movie is devoted to a framing device in which survivor Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) relates the tale to Melville himself (played by Ben Whishaw), a writer struggling in the shadow of Nathanial Hawthorne.
During these scenes, the film becomes – let me try – the story of the telling of the story of the true story behind Moby Dick. Moby Dick is a great story. The story of the Essex is a great story. But the story of someone telling that story? Enough.
Aboard the Essex, meanwhile, In the Heart of the Sea is suitably exciting stuff, and does a great job of recreating the day-to-day operations of a whaling vessel. The tense relationship between the men aboard – particularly captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and first mate Owen Chase (Hemsworth) – is also nicely captured, and results in a subtle-but-satisfying conclusion.
Hemsworth’s Chase is an experienced first mate who has been promised the captainship of a whaling vessel by his employers, while Pollard is the young captain who has been granted the position due to the family he was born into. They clash, expectedly, but also build up a respect for each other as they travel the world in search of whales and their oil.
That quest for oil never seems to end well, and given the brutality with which the whales are captured in the film’s first half we’re almost rooting for them in the second. The giant “white whale” is not so white as a lighter grey, with white scars, we infer, from previous failed whaling attempts.
Screenwriter Leavitt and director Ron Howard seem to imbue the animal with human instincts of protection and preservation and even revenge (shades of 1977’s Orca) as it brings the attack to the Essex. But for all the white whale talk and despite the Moby Dick connection, the creature itself is a minor aspect of the story, serving rather as a metaphor for mother nature herself.
At its best, In the Heart of the Sea is an engaging look at life on the seas and a thrilling tale of survival. But too often we’re brought out of the main storyline by the Melville stuff, and as good as Gleeson is at telling the story, the film suffers the more we’re told and not shown.
We don’t get many great historical seafaring movies these days – 2003’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World might have been Hollywood’s last one – but while on the waters In the Heart of the Sea comes pretty close. It could have been even better had it stuck to the story of the Essex.