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Even before a lantern-jawed, blue-eyed sailor takes his love in his arms and promises he will return to her one day, there’s something classic about In the Heart of the Sea, a rollicking, true-ish tale of adventure from director Ron Howard. All the visuals of a big-ticket holiday release are there: sweeping vistas of 19th-century lands, an alabaster behemoth that smashes ships with a mere flick of its flukes—not to mention fires and destruction and tempests on the highest of seas.
Yet the 3-D extravaganza feels like a bit of a concession from Howard. The real draw of the movie is the simple story of a man who, after a lifetime of keeping secrets, finds balm for his soul when he at last confesses his sins. In other words, this is a spectacle film for grown-ups.
The person to whom the ancient mariner, Tom (a perfect Brendan Gleeson, whom God may have put on earth expressly to play ancient mariners), chooses to unburden himself is none other than Herman Melville. Melville (Ben Whishaw) has read accounts of the wreck of the whaling ship Essex and has come to record the recollections of its last survivor.
The Essex’s first mate, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), looms largest in Tom’s memory. An accomplished sailor and skillful leader, Chase should have been given the job of ship’s captain. Instead that honor goes to George Pollard Jr. (Benjamin Walker), the privileged but inexperienced son of an influential Nantucket family. Naturally, the two officers clash. One possesses authority over the crew, the other possesses their confidence and loyalty. After some initial wrangling, Chase and Pollard agree to tolerate one another in service of their shared goal—2,000 barrels of whale oil.
Unfortunately, it’s late in the season and few prey are to be found. Then they hear rumors of an uncharted region where blow spray rises like stalks in a cornfield. Another rumor—that a white, 100-foot demon also haunts these waters—is easy to dismiss as a fish story.
Though In the Heart of the Sea’s trailer suggests something like Jaws with a whale, its tone hearkens back to a time far earlier than the 1970s. This is the kind of seafaring voyage David O. Selznick might have made. That, along with the fact that we know we won’t be barraged with an unending series of sequels (“The Age of Ishmael,” “The White Whale Awakens,” “Moby: the Prequel”), makes it a refreshing counterbalance to most other epic-scale movies these days.
Yet while the recipe sounds delicious on paper, at times the film feels as if it’s missing a crucial ingredient that would have taken it from good to great.
To wit, the movie’s most engaging moment comes when Tom suddenly draws back from revealing certain details of events after the wreck. Melville presses. “The devil loves secrets,” he says, implying that by keeping his shame to himself Tom is isolated in the exact kind of spiritual sickness the Accuser desires. Still Tom resists: What if his wife should discover his guilt? How, he asks, could she love him if she knew the depraved things he’s done?
Perhaps the reason Howard doesn’t make more of this element is because he doesn’t realize how powerful it is. Yet, intentional or not, Tom demonstrates the yearning of every soul—to be totally known and totally loved. Had Howard focused a little more on this hoary old sea dog and a little less on the young handsome first mate, his Sea would have a lot more Heart.
Still, Tom’s inner journey is compelling. And despite deserving its PG-13 rating for some salty sailor dialogue and a realistic, if gory, depiction of blubber harvesting, his character (along with some good, old-fashioned nautical pageantry) may make In the Heart of the Sea a good choice for many Christian viewers.