Movie Review: ‘In the Heart of the Sea,’ A Heartbreaking Whale Tale

I got back last night from a fantastic trip to Seattle. Seriously, it almost redeemed this crap-fest of a year. One of the things that Kara and I did during my visit (OK, it was more like “the reason for my visit”) was go to see In the Heart of the Sea, directed by Ron Howard and starring Chris Hemsworth.

The movie is wonderful. It is compelling and heartbreaking and gorgeous and haunting and worth the admission.

The movie does have its flaws. The first 20 minutes or so are a little rushed and choppy, and should have had more character development, which also would have enriched some later scenes. Chris Hemsworth’s New England accent is comically inept and distracting, at least at the start. Which is a shame especially because he does a decent generic American accent, as seen in his recent appearance on SNL. It’s when directors want him to get specific, making him do a Chicago accent (Blackhat) or a NE accent, that he obviously struggles.

Even with the lack of development, however, I don’t think the individual characters and the relationships between them are one-sided, dull, or unbelievable. Besides, the story is a.) about a group of people on a whaling ship, and b.) very much Man vs. Nature. Both the theme and the setting are broad and sweeping, so getting into the nuances of the characters is not necessary. Plus, a few details here and there (especially with Cillian Murphy’s character) do provide emotional depth.

The music and the cinematography are fabulous. I don’t really have anything specific to say about them; they’re breathtaking.

Of course, gorgeous cinematography is easy when Chris Hemsworth is in the shot.

Accent problems aside, the acting is great. Most of the story is told in flashback, between Brendan Gleeson as Thomas Nickerson and Ben Whishaw as Herman Melville. Whishaw especially does an excellent “19th century educated American” accent. His voiceover in the very beginning of the film gave me chills–his acting and his voice are beautiful. The scenes between Nickerson and Melville are comparatively few, but well-acted and carry some of the most emotional depth of the film.

Before seeing the movie, I was worried about the character of the whale, which is mostly CGI. But it was much more convincing CGI than, say, Jurassic World. The animal that inspired Moby Dick is very much its own character, and its appearances are neither too often nor too infrequent. Although it is certainly a destructive force in the film, it is not a full-blown villain. The film manages to be sympathetic both to the sailors who struggle to survive after losing their ship, and to the animals they hunt.

One of my favorite things about this film is its subtlety. It does not whitewash the horrors that the men experienced in their efforts to survive, but it does not beat you over the head with the details. It shows just enough to have an emotional impact, but it doesn’t marinate the audience in it. (This is something I hated about Twelve Years a Slave–it was so intent on showing the horrors of slavery that it was overpowering at the expense of the story, and went so far that it lost sympathy, causing the audience to get detached and go, “Okay, I get it, enough already!!!” In the Heart of the Sea does not go that far.)

I’d talk more about what I liked, but at that point I think I’d give too much away. I cried at the end. Like, a lot. It was great.

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