Ever since the release of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World in 2003, the seafaring story has been almost entirely absent from the silver screen. For somebody with an enthusiasm for all things nautical, particularly the Age Of Sail, a film like In The Heart Of The Sea scratches a long-neglected itch.
Coming from renowned director Ron Howard, this tale of survival and hardship centres around the crew of the Essex, a Nantucket whaling ship which was attacked and sunk by a sperm whale in the South Pacific. This infamous event, and the men that survived it, provided the inspiration for Herman Melville’s world-famous Moby Dick, and it is Melville’s creative process (portrayed compellingly by Ben Whishaw) which acts as a framing device for the whole story as it is recounted by Thomas Nickerson who, played in his old age by Brendan Gleeson, served as a cabin boy on the Essex during its fateful voyage to the South Seas.
This film reminded me of Master And Commander quite often and in a good way. Few films have managed to capture the raw power of the elements, from the wild unpredictability of the wind to the unadulterated strength of a rogue wave. Such natural phenomena often make for more exciting moments, because there is no way their will can be bent in order to serve the plot, and that really comes across in this film. From the visceral dismemberment of a slain whale to the later descriptions of desperate cannibalism for the sake of the crews survival, the harshness of a 19th Century whaler’s life is really brought to life by the visual effects. The camera work is very evocative too, with many low angles often submerging the camera in the sea, giving the effect of somebody swept away by the ocean, which when combined with the tumult of the whaling scenes once again emphasizes the power of nature over man.
My criticisms of this film are limited, as this is a singularly neglected genre and one which is rarely given breathing space. The plot fluctuates somewhat, with the professional conflict between Captain George Pollard and the central character of Owen Chase (played by Chris Hemsworth) firmly established and then swiftly dropped in favour of existentialist musings, which whilst appropriate are handled about as smoothly as Pollard’s initial handling of the Essex during foul weather. The casting of Cillian Murphy struck me as something of a waste, as his character is introduced yet barely established, and the actor playing the young Thomas Nickerson can easily be described as a ‘discount Jamie Bell’. But such complaints are those of but an overly-opinionated journalist, who wouldn’t last five seconds in a ‘Nantucket sleigh-ride’. If you’re looking for stirring nautical adventure to give Aubrey and Maturin a run for their money, then this is a film for you.