The mostly true story behind Herman Merville’s Moby Dick
For the next couple of weeks Star Wars: The Force Awakens will be dominating the cinemas. As a consequence the box office of many other films will take a hit, particularly those who have an audience that will overlap with it. This film is unlikely to be an exception. Though it is entertaining enough it is also remarkably old-fashioned, solid yet ultimately uninspiring.
Herman Merville (Ben Whishaw), having travelled a long distance, knocks on the door of Innkeeper Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson). Thomas is renowned as being the last survivor of the the last voyage of the Whaleship’ Essex’. Herman offers Thomas a large amount of money for the story, having heard rumours that it involves a monstrous whale. Thomas takes much persuading, by both Herman and his own wife (Michelle Fairley). The story goes back thirty years, to when a then 14-year-old Thomas signed on as a cabin boy for the ‘Essex’, a ship owned by a greedy whaling company who had refitted the ship to participate in the lucrative whaling trade. Experienced whaler Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), who worked his way up in the industry, had been promised a promotion on the ‘Essex’ is informed that if he does this one last job as first mate he will finally get that promotion. Instead the role of captain goes to George Pollard (Benjamin Walker). Though his family have much experience in whaling, he does not. He has much theory but this is his first time of putting it into practice. Owen and George immediately clash as soon as the ‘Essex’ sets sail, with Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy) playing intermediary. Months drag on and with little sign of whales they decide to go further out, to a place renowned for it’s countless whale occupants. It is also infamous as being dangerous, a land haunted by a monster whale. But plagued by greed and a desperate want to return home and end this horrific voyage. It’s the first time that Owen and George agree on something. It could also be their last as they soon discover, with deadly consequences, the monster whale is real.
Sometimes the phrase ‘they don’t make them like they used to’ has positive connotations, indicating a degree of regret at how few films are as good as the one just seen. Otherwise the phrase is uttered with a degree of relief or surprise, that films like this don’t get made very often any more. The later interpretation is the one that is most accurate here. When watching it was hard not to bite back a smile at just how old-fashioned and almost dated certain elements were. We have the greedy corporation which happens to be led by Donald Sumpter, who is recognisable for playing characters with questionable ethics. The young boy being mentored by a heroic older figure, the fact he is an orphan means the older man becomes a surrogate father. George Pollard, whose family is historic and renowned for their role in the establishment of a whaling industry, is portrayed as a man born with a silver spoon in his mouth and a stick up his bum. Obviously because he is a foil to our hero, and was born into wealth and the role means he had to be portrayed with minimal sympathy and maximum arrogance… The examples are endless.
Primarily it is the characterisation of Owen Chase, played by Chris Hemsworth, that really stood out in this regard. (The fact he was played by a Hemsworth would have meant that he snared my interest no matter what…) Hemsworth’s portrayal of Owen is in that grey area of admiral attempt at convention into pastiche. Through lighting, framing, costume and positioning alone he is established as a Byronic hero. In fact it is almost surprising that each time the camera focuses upon him angelic music and a halo of light does not appear. Owen Chase is liked by all, known to be a ‘good man’. He is loyal to his friends, adored and admired by all, yet quick to anger and driven by personal gain. Though Hemsworth is a fine actor, his character he has so much effort placed into being admirable that Owen Chase ends up being rather hackneyed.
Aside from this, the narrative is engaging enough. The appearances of the whale are filled with enough tension to entertain. The effects, camerawork and performances are relatively impressive; as is the irony that surrounds the whole affair. The message of In The Heart Of The Sea and of Moby Dick is of greed and obsession.This film was due to be released nine months earlier, in March of this year, but was delayed as it was wanted to be released during Oscar-season and therefore be entered into the awards race. Instead of releasing it during a down-time of cinema, when it would probably had a solid audience and box office takings, it will be released little over a week after the juggernaut that is Star Wars. Not only will The Heart of the Sea lose out on possible turnover, but it’s just not good enough for awards season. Perhaps it will win some for cinematography, sound or special effects, but there is little here that deserves anything more than that. Deciding to chase the metaphoric monstrous whale could prove fatal for this film.
Though mostly entertaining it strays too often to predictability. It’s also too vanilla to decide what genre it wants to be, if it had stuck to horror and developed the tone in that way then it would have been far more memorable that the bland romp that is presented instead.