In the Heart of the Sea



Think of a whale huge enough to sink a ship and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick immediately comes to mind, but that tale was doubtless inspired by what happened to a New England whaling ship in 1820 and this film tells that story.

Having switched from acting to directing, Ron Howard has come to epitomise the solid professional filmmaker in such varied fare as Splash, A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13, Rush  and Frost/Nixon and this new seafaring saga is technically of the standard that you would now expect from him. For the most part Charles Leavitt’s screenplay is reliable too, and any doubts that arise are largely due to the fact that the disparate material is such that the various sequences within it seem to be aimed at quite different audiences.


 In the Heart of the Sea


In 1956 John Huston made a film version of Melville’s classic novel Moby-Dick published in 1851. This new film, acknowledging Nathaniel Philbrick’s nonfiction book about the sinking of the whaleship Essex in 1820 as source material, imagines Melville (Ben Whishaw) tracking down Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) who had been aboard the vessel when a boy of fourteen (Tom Holland from The Impossible) and persuading him to tell his story. What he learns inspires him to have confidence in himself and to write Moby-Dick. Their talk becomes a framework for the story of the Essex which then unfolds.

This set-up initially yields less than it might although Leavitt doesn’t hesitate to namedrop by referring to another writer Nathaniel Hawthorne. In any case this potentially somewhat intellectual introduction gives way to an old-fashioned but adept sea yarn which could appeal to a young audience since it is a tale of storms at sea, an incompetent commander (not unlike ones sometimes found in westerns such as Henry Fonda’s role in Fort Apache) and then, spectacularly, an attack by an enormous whale (less blood-curdling than the shark in Jaws but exciting enough). The scenes in which our hero, first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), confronts the upper class captain (Benjamin Walker) are the weakest, but this is good adventure stuff.

But then reality intrudes: the crew taking to the boats after the Essex goes down are adrift for days and Nickerson confesses that the survivors ate off the dead. This is told, not shown, but it creates a different tone, perhaps too disquieting for young viewers (although it’s not impossible to believe that modern-day kids might find this the best part). The film also incorporates a brief philosophical scene between the chastened captain and his first mate and by the close the whale does start to grip our imaginations in a way that underlines how Melville would develop this reality into a substantial work of art. Late on, there is another kind of drama about social expediency at odds with justice, but that only adds to the sense that this film is all bits and pieces even if it is the popular sea adventure recalling films of a bygone era that dominates.

Note: This review is based on a screening of the 2D version but the film is also being distributed in 3D and in Imax.




Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Ben Whishaw, Tom Holland, Brendan Gleeson, Michelle Fairley, Joseph Mawle, Frank Dillane, Paul Anderson, Charlotte Riley, Jordi Mollà, Donald Sumpter, Jamie Sives, Gary Beadle.


Dir Ron Howard, Pro Ron Howard, Joe Roth and Paula Weinstein, Screenplay Charles Leavitt, from a story by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Charles Leavitt based on the book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick, Ph Anthony Dod Mantle, Pro Des Mark Tildesley, Ed Dan Hanley, Music Roque Baños, Costumes Julian Day.


Warner Bros. Pictures/Village Roadshow Pictures/a Roth Films/Spring Creek/Imagine Entertainment Production etc.-Warner Bros.
122 mins. USA/Australia/Spain/UK/Canada. 2015. Rel: 26 December 2015. Cert. 12A.