I watch a lot of movie and a lot of television, but I’ve never tried to write a review of either. This is a rough attempt at a review of ‘In the Heart of the Sea’, directed by Ron Howard.
During the near two hours of the whale versus human thunder-dome that is ‘In the Heart of the Sea’, my opinion oscillated between thinking it was brilliant and just OK.
Set during a time when a nation’s obsession was oil, all be it one from an animal rather than the ground, ‘In the Heart of the Sea’ dramatizes the events which inspired the American classic Moby Dick. Told as a conversation between the last surviving member of the Essex crew and a young Herman Melville, the film moves deftly between timelines and locales in order create a sense of greater meaning to both tales.
The main reason for my uncertainty centers on the nearly objective and critically universal truth that Ron Howard is a great director.
With this fil, he intended to create a film that was meant to feel like an early American novel, specifically one by Hawthorne, rather than Melville.
In one of Hawthorne’s novels, ‘The Blithdale Romance’, he elegantly frames a number of tales within each other. The time jump that takes place during ‘In the Heart of the Sea’ is a trope that is used all to often to place gravitas on the events of the past, as the viewer often witnesses the aged protagonist recounting the drama of his youth.
Here though, Howard is placing the true story of the Essex, the ship that is destroyed by the murderous white whale, within the tale of the composition of one of the defining novels in American History.
On top of that, Howard also nods at the fact that Melville was never truly respected for his accomplishment with the penning of ‘Moby Dick’. Sometimes this nod is slightly too enthusiastic and it wouldn’t have been a surprise to have text appear at the end of the film reading, ‘Even today, high school and college students, even professors, fail to appreciate the true artistry in Melville’s work.’
The title, taken from a verse in the Book of Jonah, further illustrates a larger than life presence, whale or human, throughout the narrative; however, the cinematography of the film felt cartoon-ish, as if Howard was trying to compare the story of the Essex more to Dante’s ‘Inferno’. With the demonic, white whale stalking its prey in a sea that was violently green and black under a sky that burned red from the fire of the ill fated crew’s ship, the biblical imagery was as heavy as the CG protagonist.
One aspect of the film does ring out as categorically yuck and that is Mr Hemsworth’s wandering New England accent, which appears when the character needs emphasize his roots as young man playing ‘ca’ds’.
Ultimately, ‘In the Heart of the Sea’ is a tale about losing ones humanity in order to survive. The crew of the damned boat commit terrible crimes again human nature in order to preserve their human form and even the young Melville shows glimpses of madness with his obsession with the tale. While the film puts an interesting frame on a classic tale and has moments of brilliance with style and thematic elements, it fails to develop its strongest aspects and, much like the Melville and the Essex’s white whale, the story slips away into the vastness of the sea.