No one knows why a whale of unusual coloration destroyed the whaling ship Essex in 1820. Certainly, nothing of the sort had been reported before, though whaling ships had been aggressively hunting the largest animal to ever live on earth ever since the discovery that whale oil could be used to light lamps and heat homes, not to mention the ancillary industries of scrimshaw carvings and whalebone corsets. Herman Melville based his novel “Moby Dick” on the story, turning the facts into a tale of wit and of allegory, the precise meaning of which is still debate to the present day. Ron Howard has turned the incident, by way of Nathaniel Philbrick’s non-fiction book of the same name, into a sumptuous film without allegory, but with clever social commentary about the venal nature of the oil business then and now, as well as the peculiar workings of the class system in an early American that had fought a revolution to escape from it.
The class system in this case is that of natives of Nantucket, and the whaling industry, and those whose families don’t go back a century or more. That is the case of Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), who fully expects to be given command of the Essex after its expensive refurbishment in return for a slew of successful previous voyages as first-mate. And because it was promised to him. His hopes are dashed when the careful old men who own the ship inform him that the command is going instead to the scion of an established local family, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker). That Pollard has less experience doesn’t enter into it. The rancor between the two only grows when it becomes obvious to everyone on the Essex that Chase is the better sailor, leading to a foolhardy flirtation with a squall, and a tenseness on board that serves no one. The poisonous looks they exchange when Chase’s quick thinking prevents disaster less than a day from port are done with a professional deference that disguises none of their true feelings.
Told in flashback, it begins with Melville (Ben Whishaw) staking all the money he has to coax the story of the Essex from its last living survivor, Tom Nickerson (Brenden Gleeson). Melville is sure the story will make his reputation as a novelist. Tom’s wife (Michelle Fairley) is sure that telling the story, after so many years of silence, even to her, will heal the psychic wounds that the misadventure caused. The interplay between the two, over the course of one night in one small room, is an excellent counterpoint to the story of the shipwreck, which is writ large across the screen. Both are full of the strong emotions borne of the struggle to overcome the impossible.
One awaits with a growing anticipation that the confessions of dark secrets by each man to the other will include Melville’s bruited homosexuality, but that is not the case. Perhaps that is disingenuous, but Melville’s anxiety that he will not be able to do the story justice as a novel, that he will never be the equal of Nathaniel Hawthorne strikes a more poignant chord. And Tom, finally speaking out loud his darkest shame, and finding understanding, even forgiveness, has the trademark Howard schmaltz, but not sickening excess. Even as it coincides with the rather obvious metaphor of the sun rising outside, it is still a potent moment of catharsis, even redemption, thanks to the low-key choices of all involved. Gleeson, in particular with voice almost but not quite breaking, is perfection. The real schmaltz is between Chase and his pregnant wife, who provides the requisite opportunity for exposition and the talismanic pendant with which she gifts Chase before he sets out.
Hemsworth and Walker, along with Cillian Murphy as the newly tee-totaling second-mate and Tom Holland as the young Tom, the ship’s youngest crewmember, evoke the grit of whaling and the exhilaration of what draws men to the salt air of years-long voyages. Like Melville’s novel, the mechanics of whaling are explored with great precision, including Tom being sent into a whale’s head in order to extract the best part of the creature’s oil. Hemsworth is certainly the manly man scampering across yardarms and wielding his harpoon with grace and vigor. For all the spectacular special effects, it is the vibrant, sometimes vitriolic, interplay between characters that drives the story and makes it so engrossing, particularly after the Essex has been reduces to smoldering splinters and Chase and Pollard are tasked with keeping their fellow survivors alive in open boats in the middle of nowhere. As the film puts it, the Doldrums, where they find themselves, is the desert of the South Pacific, and it’s not long before madness and cannibalism ensue. This being a Ron Howard film, though, the horror of the deed as experienced by the participants before and after is the only part of the actual process on screen, not the actual deed itself.
It is as indelible an image as any of those onscreen involving the rampaging whale, though those are breathtaking. To see the bobbing heads of the sailors struggling to their boats as the cetacean’s fluke rises above them is to understand the scale of what it meant for man to go against this creature back then. It’s also an opportunity for the film to posit an eminently reasonable explanation for the whale’s attack, and its subsequent relentless pursuit of the survivors . That along with the intelligent script and polished execution elevates IN THE HEART OF THE SEA from merely (?) a rousing adventure film into something more subtle, and more profound.