“In the Heart of the Sea” is a romantic title for a most unromantic film.
The latest from director Ron Howard is based on the real-life tragedy of The Essex, an American whaler that in 1820 was rammed and sunk by a huge sperm whale. Surviving crew members were adrift in longboats for more than three months before being rescued.
By that time they’d begun eating their dead comrades.
The story of the Essex inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick, and Charles Leavitt’s screenplay begins in 1850 with a visit by Melville (Ben Wishaw) to the whaling center of Nantucket MA to interview the last surviving member of the Essex’s crew.
Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) was the Essex’s cabin boy and 30 years later is still reluctant to discuss his experiences. He’s a depressed drunk; only financial desperation forces him to accept Melville’s offer of cash for a night’s conversation.
As the two men drink and talk, the doomed voyage unfolds in flashbacks.
It all plays out like a variation on Mutiny on the Bounty/Men Against the Sea.
The Essex’s experienced first mate, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), is a farmer’s son who rose through the ranks. He was promised his own ship but the owners have reneged.
Instead the command goes to George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), who lacks Chase’s skill but has the social connections that come with being a member of one of Nantucket’s great mercantile families.
So there’s class conflict and professional resentments brewing.
Of course, personal issues are irrelevant when you’re battling a furious behemoth of the deep. Once the Essex has gone to the bottom the men in the longboats face weeks of thirst, hunger and madness. Simple survival is all that matters.
“In the Heart of the Sea” is an odd film — in works best in depicting the lives and labors of 19th-century whalers. Modern f/x allows us to swim alongside the great beasts and to recreate a huge pod of whales breaching and spouting as far as the eye can see.
The actual work of harpooning and bringing in one of these monsters is depicted in terrific detail.
A dying whale’s last spout leaves the crewman covered in a bloody mist. Sharks tear at the whales lashed alongside the ship for processing. The cabin boy is ordered to descend into a dead whale’s blowhole to harvest the precious oil that keeps lamps burning throughout the world.
And the rampage of the great whale as it rams the Essex and upends longboats is a marvelous visual spectacle.
But “In the Heart of the Sea” falls short as drama, mainly because the actors portraying the two main antagonists generate little spark.
As Captain Pollard, Walker (“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”) is, well, nondescript. There’s no oomph there.
Hemsworth, on the other hand, gives a bombastically bad performance. Weird, this Aussie actor shows terrific restraint when playing the comic book superhero Thor (he was also good in Howard’s auto racing movie, “Rush”), but he’s all strum and drang and bellowing as the ambitious and frustrated Chase. (Although he does get props for losing his Thor bulk to portray a man slowly starving to death.)
There’s a strong supporting cast here: Cillian Murphy, Michelle Fairley (late of “Game of Thrones”), Frank Dillane (of “Fear the Walking Dead”) and Tom Holland as the adolescent Thomas Nickerson.
But the screenplay gives them little to do and few exhibit memorable personalities.
Moreover, it’s hard to make drifting in a boat all that interesting.
With this movie you take your small pleasures where you can. I like how Leavitt’s screenplay hammers home the idea that the whale oil business was the equivalent of today’s petrochemical industry, a gigantic worldwide enterprise willing to bury the truth about the Essex’s demise to keep the wheels turning smoothly and free of controversy.
So go for the spectacle, but brace yourself for those dull patches.