Review - In the Heart of the Sea

In the Heart of the Sea (2015), PG-13, 122 minutes - This is a film that originally caught my eye months ago when I saw the first trailer.  Directed by Ron Howard and sporting a cast including Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw, and Michelle Fairley it just seemed like a film that I would enjoy.  Especially considering my soft spot for period pieces.  In the Heart of the Sea tells the story of the American whaling ship The Essex and its crew, which set sail on a whaling expedition from Nantucket in 1820 and is based upon the non-fiction book of the same name (published in 2000).  This story is also presented as being the real-life inspiration for Herman Melville's literary classic Moby-Dick (published in 1851).

The Essex's expedition got off to a rough start as the heir of a well known sailing family, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), was selected as the ship's captain over the much more experienced Owen Chase (Hemsworth).  Chase had previously been promised that his next job would be as captain, but instead is passed over for Pollard.  He begrudgingly accepts the job as The Essex's first-mate, and procures a written promise of future captaincy.  The beginning of their journey at sea is full of disagreements between the two as to what actions are best for the crew.  Chase plays the 'good soldier' and falls in line behind Pollard's command despite his better judgement.  The difference in their experience becomes quite clear early in the voyage when a command from Pollard runs The Essex head-on into a rampaging storm in efforts to make up lost time due to lack of wind.  The crew survives the ordeal, but only because of Chase's experience and leadership under duress.  The expedition continues with little success.  The ship then makes its way towards the Pacific in hopes of better luck, stopping in Atacames, Ecuador to replenish supplies.  It is there that they hear of an extensive heard of whales in the 'offshore grounds' 2,000 miles to the west.  As they prepare to head in that direction, a Spanish captain warns of a gigantic white sperm whale that single-handedly decimated his crew.  Not wanting to return home empty handed, Pollard and Chase agree to ignore the warning and set sail in that direction.  As you may guess, things do not go well for The Essex and her crew once they arrive at the 'offshore grounds'.

Ron Howard uses Melville's (Ben Whishaw) interview of the final living member of The Essex's crew, Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson while Tom Holland plays Nickerson's younger years) to narrate the film.  Nickerson recounts the horrors that the crew encountered at sea and the atrocities they committed in their efforts to survive once the ship was lost after its encounter with the monstrous white whale.

I have no idea how valid the claim is that this story helped inspire Melville's work, but it makes for an entertaining tale.  The film does feel like it drags on a bit after the Essex sinks, but there's not really any other way to portray the passage of time and the efforts to survive at sea.  The relationship between Pollard and Chase and its evolution over their journey helps to keep things interesting, and Melville's and Nickerson's interactions in the present add even more weight to the dire events being told.  This film definitely isn't for everyone, due to the nature of the subject matter and its period piece status, but if you enjoy such stories, it may be worth your time to give it a look.

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