“Secrets fester in a man’s soul”, and who to bring these secrets to the screen better than Brendan Gleeson. Gleeson seems born for this mythic role of whale ship tragedy and repression. As Thomas Nickerson his ordeal at fourteen begins in Nantucket in 1819. The cabin boy of the twenty-man crew of the Essex will endure the unthinkable and suffer as a survivor into his seventies, when his devils are released by putting pen to paper instead of stein to lip.
Based on the true story of the source of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, “In The Heart Of The Sea” adheres to Nathaniel Philbrick’s masterful book. As a leading authority of Nantucket history, Philbrick brought a richness of detail and ardor for maritime pioneering, navigation, whale biology and human kinship.
Philbrick’s 2000 National Book Award winner should be required reading in all U.S. high schools. Philbrick’s non-fiction may inspire students to tackle the great American novel Moby Dick on their own. Lesson planning should include viewing Director Ron Howard’s film for it makes seafaring come alive with close shots of strenuous sea work and glorious overhead shots of roiling waves and thrashing winds. Whether filming harpoon sharpening or fields of flukes, man’s contentious encounter with nature and commerce is viscerally drawn. This is an action film even when starvation and dehydration bring movement to a stand still. Psychological knock-downs rain down,too.
Chris Hemsworth’s Adonis good looks is another reason to learn about first mate Owen Chase, who actually wrote a polished account of the Essex ramming in 1821. Hemsworth is helm’s worthy to be sure. He is last to abandon ship and the voice that we hear say of the great white leviathan, ” He is mine,as I live and breathe”.
The Essex lists, but we follow Chase as the ink of the captain’s log washes away. Even Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) says, “You were born to this job, I was just born into it.”
Pollard is upper class and considers men earthly kings who can bend nature to their will. Chase feels small in comparison to God’s creatures: “We are specks”. The screenplay does not develop this philosophical debate, but it introduces it for the taking.
Global demand for sperm whale oil has its connections to our demand for ground oil today. The clamor for investment is fashioned in ink well form, but the point is made that the natural world is often expended for profit.
I liked the story’s frame of Herman Melville ( Ben Whislaw) coaxing the story out of Nickerson in order to incorporate authentic experience into his novel. I liked the final inquiry when both Chase and Pollard concurred that the whale brought down the Essex. Sea monsters threatening industry was not white-washed for profit.
“Abominations” of cannibalism persisted in Owen Chase’s brain and we learn from Philbrick’s book that old age was not good to him. ” His memory of his suffering in an open dingy never left him and he began hiding food in the attic of his house on Orange Street. By 1868 Chase was judged “insane”.” Howard leaves us with Owen Chase holding his wife and two-year old daughter, a happier ending.
In truth, Chase’s personal life did not fare well. At twenty-seven, he found himself a widower with three children to care for. He was married four times. Once to the widow of second mate Matthew Joy ( Cillian Murphy). As for George Pollard, ( Benjamin Walker) lots of stories are recorded in Philbrick’s book. One has Pollard honoring yearly those lost on the Essex by locking himself in his room and fasting. Another dozen movies could be made from the material in Philbrick’s book!
I say get started by visiting the Whaling Museum on Nantucket, reading Philbrick’s and Chase’s and Melville’s works, and enjoying the technological feats and cinematic elegance of Howard’s film.