Chris Hemsworth, eager to work again with Ron Howard after their experience filming Rush, brought Ron Howard the script for In The Heart of The Sea. It’s lucky for us he did. In his newest film, Howard has the pace and passion necessary to tell the legendary story of "Moby Dick" and the Essex, which sank on Nov. 20, 1820 during a routine whaling expedition. He told Townhall how pleased he was to introduce the tale to a new generation.
The film is driven by a conversation between Herman Melville, played by Ben Whishaw, and an aged Thomas Nickerson, the cabin boy onboard the Essex when it capsized. The older Nickerson is portrayed by Brendan Gleeson, the younger by Tom Holland. Melville tracks down Nickerson to learn the true story of how a whale sunk the ship and the crew was lost at sea for 90 days. He intends to pen the novel that has haunted him for years. As Nickerson is retelling the crew’s journey, the film flashes back and forth to the Essex's journey which left Nantucket Island in 1819. The flashforwards and backwards have been done so often in film that at times it can seem predictable. Yet, it is done with such an ease and fluidity in IHOTS that it seemed original and refreshing.
Pacing can also be an issue in a suspenseful film like this. The buildup to a pivotal scene is often just as important as the scene itself. Howard wisely chooses to wait 30-40 minutes in until we meet the beast.
The whale attack lives up to the hype. When the monster-sized mammal first strikes the ship, it was so realistic I felt like I was on a ride in Disney World. I, along with other members of the audience, could actually feel the impact of the hit. (That, by the way, is not the only time you’ll jump while watching this film.)
The whale’s supporting cast wasn’t so bad either. Hemsworth convincingly captures first mate Owen Chase’s hot temper and determination to keep his crew alive. Whishaw is charming and likable as the novelist Herman Melville. Tom Holland is perfectly cast as the wide-eyed cabin boy Thomas Nickerson, and Benjamin Walker, best known for his role as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, captures Captain George Pollard’s tepid and frustrated leadership.
You’ve got to give this cast credit for taking their roles as lost seamen so seriously. Hemsworth, Holland, Walker and the rest of the company disciplined their diets down to 500 calories a day to get the skeletal-like bodies they needed to play the Essex sailors. On top of that, they had to endure being thrown across a ship, splashed and soaked for weeks. Oh, and then there was the seasickness. Hemsworth told me a little about that unpleasantless when I caught up with him on his press tour in New York.
Audiences should also be comforted to know that Howard chose to soften the more graphic parts of the story. (It refers to, yet doesn’t show the cannibalism the crew succumbed to during their desperate voyage.)
My only complaint would be that the whale not appear again after initially slamming the side of the ship. It perhaps would have been more believable if Howard left the monster a bit to the imagination and just a haunt and obsession of first mate Owen Chase. The whale strikes the Essex and then is never to be seen again, according to legend. Yet, I can see why the director would want to take liberty with the story to bring the whale back onscreen. It is cinematic gold.
Bravo to Howard for captaining this epic tale. Catch it in theaters Friday.