“The tragedy of the Essex is the story of men. And a Demon.”
When I was young, I had a huge reading book about Moby Dick. I gazed at the rich illustrations for hours and eagerly I read about the adventures of Ishmael aboard the Pequod. And I can still see the final drawing before my eyes, with Captain Ahab hanging in the ropes of his harpoon against Moby Dick diving into the ocean. Maybe my expectations were too high for “In the Heart of the Sea” and I hoped to see a similar scene. Unfortunately, it wasn’t really a movie about a battle between man and whale. It was more something like “Stranded”. But taking place on sea. The rivalry between Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) and Captain Pollard (Benjamin Walker) was more interesting than the whaling itself. And did you watch the trailer? Well that means you have already seen the most impressive images of the psychopathic white sperm whale.
I’m sure it was more exciting and terrifying for sailors in those days as it is for film fans watching this movie. Imagine them sitting in a wobbly little wooden rowing boat, throwing that gigantic harpoon at a huge sperm whale which swims under their boat. And after that, they needed to get that colossus on board to collect that precious whale oil. A raw material which was necessary in the 19th century to keep those lamps burning. The film begins at the port of Nantucket around 1819. Chase tells his pregnant wife he’s signing in on the Essex to go hunting for whales and that he probably won’t be in time to witness her giving birth. Beautiful computer-generated images show how daily life looked like in those days. Only Chase’s dream to be captain of the Essex is harpooned (how appropriate) immediately. The job goes to one certain George Pollard. Not because of his extensive knowledge and experience in terms of floating around on such a large boat, but because of the fact that he’s a descendant of an aristocratic, wealthy family.
The film includes three successive storylines. First, there’s the competition between Pollard and Chase. After that the two fighting cocks bury the hatchet when the crazy white sperm starts attacking them. And then the defeated survivors reconcile while drifting hopelessly around on the ocean, a few thousand miles from South America in rowboats, after the Essex sank. And there’s a witness of this story namely Thomas Nickerson (Tom Holland) who’s a shipmate. He’s (Brendan Gleeson) now the last witness of this shipwreck. He tells the complete story, after much encouragement, to Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw), who uses these notes afterwards, after subjecting it to a thorough censorship and keeping the rough lines, for his successful novel “Moby Dick”. And so the circle is complete.
In terms of decor and images, this film is quite magnificent. The raging sea with his pounding, foaming, giant waves. The stately ship that cleaves through the ocean. The views of the medieval harbor town and the decoration of Tom’s house. And finally the stunning images of a school of whales and the whale hunt itself. Unfortunately the scarred white whale came into the picture far too little. You can compare it a bit with the last Godzilla movie. The monster is there, but there’s hardly anything to see of it. The sense of menace and being hunted, was truly there at times. But the insertion of the rounds of conversation between Tom and Herman reduced the pace of this movie drastically. The result is a slow historical drama, instead of a thrilling spectacle at sea with a pseudo Moby Dick in the lead.