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In the Heart of the Sea

In The Heart of the Sea got a lukewarm response both from the critics and at the box office. An elaborate period piece as well as a sea-going tale, it had those two strikes against it, but the movie delivers a hit anyway in my opinion—if not a home run, at least a double. Though it deals with a number of difficult subjects, Heart is a robust tale, combining all the important elements of good filmmaking to create an epic that faithfully mirrors Nathaniel Philbrick’s non-fiction bestseller with the subtitle “The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex”. In a season dominated by the likes of Star Wars and Hunger Games, it is oddly refreshing to be reminded that nature sometimes wins its battles against the human spirit and that in some ways man is better off for it.

The structure of the film centers on the flashback device. A young writer, Herman Melville, played by Ben Whishaw, comes to the home in Nantucket of one of the survivors of the wreck of the Essex: Tom Nickerson, played by Brendan Gleeson. After a great deal of bickering, Melville convinces Nickerson to deny his demons and tell Melville the story of the Essex’s demise.

The flashback enhances the story. There is enough action to keep the viewer busy, but when the action does stop, the audience is exhausted. A movie made up of non-stop action would weary its audience, and the interludes with Whishaw and Gleeson provide an interesting respite from the whale and his pursuit.

And I mean “his pursuit” in both ways it can be taken. Much of the movie portrays the pursuit of the Essex by a huge, white whale, encountered when the whalers go further out than they have ever been before into the middle of the Pacific. This storyline shows the whale as God’s ambiguous agent of Nature and its right to survive in peace. When the whalers finally reach a field of whales larger and more productive than they have ever seen, the giant whale is portrayed as rescuing and protecting the other whales as the herd’s defender. At the same time the whale’s relentless pursuit of the sailors, well after the Essex has been destroyed and the men are any threat to anyone or anything, shows him as a symbol of Evil, pursuing man until it crushes him.

The other pursuit, the pursuit of the whale as the obsession of Chris Hemsworth’s character, first mate Owen Chase, becomes a symbolic quest that will not stop until Man once again asserts his dominance over Nature. The ecological and evolutionary themes here are obvious.

The movie is directed by Ron Howard and the chief roles are played by Hemsworth and Benjamin Walker, who plays Chase’s nemesis Captain Pollard, with a verve that is appealing. My guess is that places in the movie would have been quite spectacular in 3-D, though I didn’t see it in that format.

Drew Trotter

December 11, 2015

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