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Review: In The Heart of the Sea

Though purely coincidental, it is interesting to note that the very same phrase was used by two of literary’s finest, albeit written over two hundred years apart, to describe the predicaments faced by the tragically flawed leading men at the center of this week’s theatrical new releases. The phrase “Fair is foul and foul is fair” is widely known to all those who had to read William Shakespeare’s Macbeth in high school English class, and yet lesser is known of novelist Herman Melville’s poem Clarel, in which a similar phrase is written about the whaleship Essex’s fallen from grace Captain George Pollard. He wrote “A night patrolman on the quay/ Watching the bales till morning hour/ Through fair and foul.” These words were written following the commercial and critical failure of his epic novel Moby Dick, the penning of which forms the backbone of director Ron Howard’s film In the Heart of the Sea.

The film opens on a dark and blustery night when the aforementioned Melville (as portrayed by Ben Whishaw, who can also be seen in this week’s beautiful The Danish Girl) demands that Nantucketer Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson, Whishaw’s Suffragette co-star) recount his torrid experience as a cabin boy aboard (and shipwrecked from) the Essex in 1819/1820, in exchange for a large sum of money. For years the grizzled and alcoholic Nickerson has been haunted by the disastrous voyage and, after much pleading by his long suffering wife (Michelle Fairley, formerly of Game of Thrones), he rehashes the whale of a tale to Melville.

When Nickerson was fourteen years old, Nantucket’s economy and town life were booming, thanks to the prosperous whaling industry embedded there. Becoming a whaleman (or “fishy man”, as the locals dubbed it) was a rite of passage and fact of life, and Nickerson was eager to join the ranks of his fellow townsmen. The Essex was a well-worn and rickety ship, but that didn’t concern cocky First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth, reuniting with his Rush director) and Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), who were both eager to display their leadership skills to the nineteen manned crew and to the ship’s benefactors (who, we later learn, skimped disastrously on the ship’s provisions).

Early in their voyage, however, all of their fates are decided by a one-hundred foot sperm whale who purposefully and ferociously sends the ship into an untimely underwater grave. With nothing but three cramped boats, some food and water, and limited equipment, the men must navigate their way to the Southern Islands, thousands of miles away. For anyone who has read Moby Dick (or has seen any tales of shipwreck, last year’s underrated Unbroken amongst them), you know that this Man vs. Nature account does not end with Man as the victor.

What is most dishearteningly foul about the film is that it waters down (if you will) the most fascinating aspects of the exceptionally well researched source material. Author Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea gives the reader a well rounded history of the town, the true horrors that the survivors of the Essex endured (no spoilers here but the film whitewashes the real life events), and the aftermath of the wreck on both its survivors and their loved ones. The film adaptation is fine for family viewing as a diluted adventure story but we recommend you seek out the thrilling book instead. 

[star v=3]

Leora Heilbronn

Leora Heilbronn is a Toronto based film aficionado who has a weakness for musicals and violent action flicks. She can often be spotted reading a wide range of literature or listening to show tunes.