Ron Howard’s take on the fateful tale of the Essex, which inspired Moby Dick.
There really aren’t many directors who can claim to have had such a varied career as Ron Howard – from playing Richie in Happy Days (1974-84), to narrating Arrested Development (2003-) and directing the likes of Cocoon (1985) and Apollo 13 (1995), the man has done it all. So it seems fitting that his next project be massive in scale – telling the story of the white whale that inspired Howard Melville to write one of America’s great tales, Moby Dick.
The story of the Essex, a whaling ship that was brought down by a whale in 1820, is one that is surprisingly little known considering it was the inspiration for a literary classic. This film is based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Nathanial Philbrick, and the story of the crew is a harrowing one. Screenwriter Charles Leavitt, best known for Blood Diamond (2006), uses Ben Wishaw and Brendan Gleeson as a framing device, with Wishaw’s Howard Melville coming to Gleeson’s Thomas Nickerson – the last surviving crew member from the ship. It’s a relatively smart move which allows the narrative to skip over the long voyage out to sea with ease, but not without some cliche’ laden set-up. We’ve seen it all before, but thankfully it’s not too long before the crew set sail to seek out the precious whale oil that kept the world running.
None of the characters ever feel three dimensional and we are instead presented with various half formed ideas. The human conflict derives from Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) – the experienced first mate who deserves to be captain but lacks the name – and George Pollard Jr (Benjamin Walker), the less experienced captain from a whaling family. Again, a captain/first mate rivalry is nothing new and it feels like the two actors have been wasted (the less said about Chris Hemsworth’s ridiculous accent the better). Other half baked creations include tee-total second mate Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy), the captain’s cousin Henry Coffin (Frank Dillane) and Tom Holland as the young Thomas Nickerson. All give good performances, with Dillane bringing a dual sense of menace and vulnerability to Coffin’s sorry tale, but are ultimately bound by the limitations of Leavitt’s generic script.
In terms of set up and characters, Howard relies pretty heavily on worn-out cliche’, but maybe he knew that people were only really going to pay to see this film for one reason – the whale – and boy does he deliver on that aspect. We start of by seeing some regular whales, the sort that the crew have no problem hunting, and they look pretty good. The CGI is impressive, even if the actual hunting is a little uncomfortable to watch from a modern standpoint. Anticipation builds, and by the time the big guy rears his head we are desperate for a glimpse at one of the focal points of literary history. Again, the CGI is effective and Howard is hugely successful in encapsulating the terrifying sense of scale, showing us just how big the creature is (and why you never want to make a whale angry). Moby Dick is what makes the film worth seeing and Howard’s work on the whale, as well as the visuals in general, are a real treat.
For anyone unfamiliar with the story of the Essex, the film goes much darker than one would expect for such typical Hollywood fare, but spares us on the graphics and still veers towards a Hollywood ending (in reality Owen Chase ended up being institutionalised). Howard seems eager to remind us all that this is a film set in the 1800’s, when whale oil was the only option, with numerous cack-handed reminders throughout (the “oil from the ground” remark is by far the worst offender) and he drives the religious and moral themes home perhaps a little too obviously by the end, but none of this stops In the Heart of the Sea from being a visually appealing and watchable flick – seriously though, someone tell Chris Hemsworth he can’t do accents.