In the Heart of the Sea

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Laura Clifford 
In the Heart of the Sea

Robin Clifford 

When the owners of the newly retrofitted Essex whaling ship call in Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), he's expecting they'll make good on their promise of commissioning him to captain their vessel. But the farmer's son turned Nantucket whaleman is still struggling for respect and is offered the position of First Mate in deference to greenhorn George Pollard (Benjamin Walker, "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter"), a man born into the industry.  The two's obvious dislike for one another will be a major factor in the decision to sail 2,000 miles away from land to a whaling field "In the Heart of the Sea."

Laura:
Director Ron Howard gave us a thrilling experience with another tale of two men pitted against one another in a grueling career with 2013's "Rush," but his highly touted adaptation of the true story that inspired 'Moby Dick' (adapted from Nathaniel Philbrick's book by Charles Leavitt ("K-PAX," "Blood Diamond")) is often visually and narratively incoherent. While the CGI created great white whale is impressive, Howard and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle's in-your-face sea-faring shaky cam capturing of the men suffering its onslaught is so chaotic it becomes numbing and the conflict set up between Chase and Pollard is quickly forgotten.

The film opens with Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw, "Spectre") arriving at the home of Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the last survivor of the Essex disaster.  Melville offers the man a huge sum to tell his tale, but the haunted Nickerson has never spoken of it, drowning his past in drink.    Mrs. Nickerson (Michelle Fairley, "Philomena"), who's been holding the homestead together, insists, however, wishing her husband to unburden himself.

Nickerson, who at fourteen (Tom Holland, "The Impossible") was making his first whaling trip, quickly establishes that his story is one of 'two men,' - Chase and Pollard.  On board the Essex, Chase quickly establishes his experienced command, ordering men and clambering up a mast when a sail gets caught in the rigging.  Pollard is polite, asking his First Mate to guide him, but with a squall on the horizon, Pollard insists on maintaining full sail despite Chase's warnings, and the Essex incurs so much damage Pollard wishes to turn around.

And yet there's very little conflict between the two men after this point.  We're shown a whale hunt, Howard keeping the proceedings mercifully light on gore, Nickerson elected to climb into a blowhole to procure its 'treasure' (not defined here, one presumes the ambergris).  At a South American port of call, the officers meet a Spanish captain (Jordi Mollà, "Blow," "Riddick") who's lost his ship to a great white whale, but Pollard, Chase and second mate Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy) dismiss his story, instead focusing on its location, farther than most seamen are willing to travel.  There, they are told, are hundreds of the sea creatures they seek and Pollard and Chase agree to venture out, quickly fill their barrels and return home to be rid of each other.  Bad decision.

The film is often frustrating to watch, jumpy, soft focus action quickly cut together with sharper long takes, editing introducing narrative confusion.  When the action returns to the older Nickerson's home, yet another visual style is used, the set looking stage bound with Nickerson's wife hovering in shadows waiting to enter the scene.  After the film's climatic foundering of the Essex, the action both slows in pace and speeds up in time, the sailors wasting away, giving way to (off screen) cannibalism.  Leavitt's screenplay fudges facts as well, the real Pollard having had experience on the Essex before becoming its captain.  The men's return to Nantucket is anticlimactic, despite the ship's owners' wish to cover up the true story of the Essex (although Leavitt does introduce a modern parallel to oil's corrupting influence).

Hemsworth looks dashing, but no one in the ensemble really stands out.  Melville turned this story into a great American classic, but Howard's set it adrift.

Grade:  C-

Robin:
Robin did not see this film.
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