Review by Ellery Nick @Ellery__Nick
Brendon Gleeson plays Thomas Nickerson, last survivor of a doomed whaling voyage. He sets Ben Whishaw on his knee to recount his boyhood adventures and unburden himself of a dark secret.
They occupy a spot lit space on the periphery of director Ron Howard’s story, which is set many years in the past. Whishaw is Herman Melville, a yet-to-be famous novelist who is consumed by talk of whales and sets about pumping Nickerson for the facts behind a ghastly rumour. In the Heart of the Sea then depicts the real life events that inspired the fancy of Moby-Dick.
Back thirty years, and cabin boy Nickerson is now played by Spiderman-in-waiting Tom Holland. He’s promptly taken under the burly wing of Chris Hemsworth’s Owen Chase, who was about to make a name for himself, only to lose his promised captaincy to the ills of nepotism. And the benefactor? Why it’s Captain Pollard Jr. played by Benjamin Walker who is soon swooning over the saltiness of his first mate and a rivalry develops as they seek to establish themselves in the eyes of the crew.
Throw in a nod or two at the dubious integrity of the whaling industry, foreshadowing their depleted numbers today, and it seems that In the Heart of the Sea is indeed the real life account upon which a fanciful yarn was based. There is yet more realism to be found in the cinematography of Anthony Dod Mantle, (Slumdog Millionaire) who gives us a pretty film that delights in the disgusting – the harvesting of a whale whilst sharks try to steal its corpse being of particular revulsion. Elsewhere, the town of Nantucket is convincingly realised – all wet wood and bloody entrails, ropes straining against masts. There is, it should be said, a lot of climate in this film. A real sense of the elements, thrashing waves and scorching sun.
But for me, the story behind the great American novel of man versus nature is somewhat lacking in arrogance. The entitled snob captain is plainly a good sort, we all recognise that he’s under a lot of pressure from dad. Owen Chase has his moments of petty pride, but generally when he says things his hair is blonde and backlit by the sun. Dependable Owen is really just itching to get back to his little lady, never mind grinding savage nature beneath his boot. The opposing force, which was so effectively described in the fierce elements of nature, was sadly sanitised in the man and made the central dynamic of this film fall flat. In Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab was an ‘ungodly, godlike man’ and Ishmael’s prejudice was first displayed like a trophy until he later learned that a savage friend was all the better for having ‘no civilized hypocrisies.’ Here, everyone’s teeth are in good working order, on the whole they appear to be quite nice.
But not for long, surely, because the most unthinkable reality that a true story can muster is what men will do if necessary to stay alive. Cannibalism is the dark secret festering in the heart of this film, the secret that transformed Gleeson’s poor Nickerson into a sort of sad mustard bear, compelled to forever sip whisky and make little ships out of balsa wood. But here can be found the most polite consumption of man on film.
‘After you sir.’
‘I couldn’t possibly,’
‘The thigh is tender sir, really I must insist.’
Cut to bleached pelvic bone drifting in the sun. There may have been some paraphrasing, but nevertheless, this abomination most foul lacks a little commitment.
Perhaps the trouble is that lately we’ve had a change of heart. Period dramas like Pride and Prejudice remain effective because we can still inhabit the timeless romantic roles. Whaling, isn’t so straightforward. The antagonist for one, has been somewhat reformed. Whales, as we all now know, are peaceful sea cows, floating in a giant boundless bath and swapping harmonics with each other. It isn’t so easy for us to see them as they might have been – demon leviathans of impossible dimensions, with rows of great teeth, appearing mysteriously from an unknowable world beneath the water. Now to see one wreaking havoc upon our dusty haired noblemen we can’t help but think – ‘big guy, that’s not like you!’
The telling of this story presents then a challenge in modern translation. For it to work we need to understand not just the heart of a sea monster, but also the less palatable hearts of the men bent on mastering a savage world. We are given visceral imagery – blood, guts and oil. It’s is a sensuous experience, but between the true story and the novel, it is the former that ends up feeling like a tenuous work of fiction.
In the Heart of the Sea is released into cinemas on Boxing Day, December 26th.