Thursday, December 10, 2015

Review: "In the Heart of the Sea"

“In the Heart of the Sea” works as a rousing sea adventure story, the inspiration for “Moby-Dick,” though it suffers from more grandiose aspirations that largely go unrealized. And some bad Boston accents.

The film makes a half-hearted attempt at a man-corrupts-nature environmental theme, and begins a Christian-vs.-Bligh type of conflict between the ship’s first mate and captain, only to drop it halfway through. Based on a nonfiction book by Nathaniel Philbrick, the screenplay by Charles Leavitt has some structural problems, with a big dead spot about two-thirds of the way through.

But director Ron Howard ably helms the action scenes, including the thrilling bout with the massive white sperm whale. And the movie brings a great sense of authenticity about what it’s like to be aboard a Nantucket whaling boat in 1820 -- the sun-creased faces, the creaking of the sails, the ever-present fear of a squall, the way men’s personalities rub against each other after a year at sea.

Howard reunites with Chris Hemsworth, who starred in the criminally overlooked racing movie “Rush.” Here he plays Owen Chase, a seasoned whaler who thinks he’s in line to become captain, but is instead put under the thumb of George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), a greenhorn with the right family name and financial backing.

As a “landsman,” the son of a poor farmer, Chase has had to work his way up from the bottom, and naturally resents the aristocratic captain. Pollard insists on showing the crew who’s boss, and nearly sinks the ship on their second day out of port. They spar, but agree to put their differences aside long enough to collect 2,000 barrels of whale oil.

Eventually they make their way into the Pacific Ocean, where they hear tales of a remote spot where the whales are bountiful. The story turns out to be true, but so does the warning of a giant bull who does not take kindly to having his colony attacked.

Their ship, the Essex, is sunk and the survivors are forced to flee on small boats thousands of miles from land, and things quickly grow dire. The actors make a believable transformation into starving skeletons -- unlike the recent “The 33” -- with the help of a little CGI.

The film uses a framing device of Thomas Nickerson, a 14-year-old member of the crew, being interviewed by Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) 30 years later as inspiration for his most famous novel. Now a mean old drunk played by Brendan Gleeson, he’s reluctant to share the true story of the Essex, which was officially recorded as having run aground. Tom Holland plays him as a boy.

(There’s a certain amount of historical shenanigans going on here with the storyline. Chase actually published an account of the Essex disaster immediately afterward, which was what inspired Melville. It was another writer who interviewed Nickerson, convincing him to write his own book. Interestingly, the film largely gets the events that happened at sea right but finagles with the epilogue.)

I’m not sure whose idea it was to have all these actors of different English-speaking vintages talk in realistic 1820s Nantucket accents, but the result is a mishmash of bent vowels and oft-indecipherable dialogue. At one point Hemsworth greets Cillian Murphy as an old comrade and they share a jaunty banter, of which I couldn’t understand a thing.

(Hemsworth is Australian, Murphy and Gleeson are Irish, Holland is English and Walker is American.)

Another swing-and-a-miss is the attempt to correlate 1820s energy challenges with our own. Whale and petroleum both lit the world in their respective eras and neither is a renewable resource (except as fast as adult whales can spawn new ones, anyway). The parallel is given a few feeble gestures, then dismissed.

“In the Heart of the Sea” is a great-looking picture; Howard is a top-drawer visual storyteller. It’s a good movie that could have been a much better one, either by being less ambitious, or more. Sometimes you have to drown your darlings.

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