In 1850 Nantucket, young novelist Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) arrives at a dockside boardinghouse late one night, when all of the boarders have gone to bed and only the proprietress (Michelle Fairley) and her husband Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) are still awake. The husband is spending the wee hours as he usually does: drinking himself into a cloud of whiskey and gently jiggering upright the masts of the model ships in the many bottles around him. Melville has come to hear his story, which he thinks would be beneficial for the research he's doing for a novel: a whaling saga, set on a ship, about how the search for the unattainable can ruin a man's life. He's willing to pay for an interview, but money alone won't pry open this man's box of memories. He's a survivor of the wreck of the Essex, a legendary whaling ship that met its match under shady circumstances, even though its first mate, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), was one of the finest sailors who ever lived. He hedges. Melville persists. And so, with some encouragement from his wife (and a fresh bottle), he spills his unforgettable tale.
In the Heart of the Sea, based on Nathaniel Philbrick's nonfiction novel about the sea voyage that inspired Moby Dick, boasts an impressive cast of cult-favorite actors from former and current British territories -- Chris Hemsworth, Brendan Gleeson, Cillian Murphy, Ben Whishaw, Frank Dilane -- who, with their various accents, form a believable ensemble hailing from what was, after all, New England. Studio head Jack L. Warner once famously complained, after his company produced a string of historical films that were box-office duds, "Don't make me any more movies where people write with feathers." That stuffy formality is the downfall of the many period dramas so eager to get the details right that the thrust of the story is forgotten, but In the Heart of the Sea sidesteps that danger mostly through the combined skill of its cast. Only the ship's highborn captain (played by Benjamin Walker) behaves like a stuffed shirt, and rightly so: He is the only character who is conscious of performing a destiny, as if he's already posing for the ancestral portrait that will someday grace his well-to-do family's estate. Everyone else is just a working stiff trying to get through the day with the tools he has. For Chase, it's an arsenal of harpoons to cut down the whales, and for Melville, it's a frantically scribbling pen, the only thing he has to ward off the ego-squelching presence of literary contemporaries like Nathaniel Hawthorne. This world is rich with artifacts, from crystal wine cruets to whale-oil lamps to a key-cranked marine chronometer, but their matter-of-fact handling by the actors keeps the focus on the story.
Regrettably, the one directorial decision that disturbs the movie's immersive, you-are-there quality is the unwanted and interrupting presence of extreme close-ups that look as if they're from security cameras affixed to strange locations -- looking straight down the rail of the ship, for example, or in a Nantucket gutter so we get a worm's eye view of a corn cob being slobbered on by a stray dog. Is this an attempt to graft the visual language of reality TV and surveillance footage onto a historical epic, in order to convince us of its authenticity? If so, it doesn't work, and it somewhat undermines the topsy-turvy sensation of the shots that give us a sense of the hazards of whaling, getting up close and personal with a behemoth mammal in the frothing surf. (There's also a disorienting casting choice: Chris Hemsworth bears a strong resemblance to Brendan Gleeson, which might make audiences think that the story is told from Chase's perspective, not that of the younger shipmate Nickerson later turns out to be.)
But these are small quibbles considering that In the Heart of the Sea is a thrilling survival saga that will get your blood pumping. Director Ron Howard has created a maritime redux of his other explorers' epic, Apollo 13; both of the films are about men at the mercy of technologies that help them traverse dangerous places (outer space, the open sea) but also make them more vulnerable, and both focus on the deep reserves of courage those men discover while trying to survive a no-man's-land. Indeed, this movie features two different journeys into a heart of darkness running in parallel: one aboard the Essex, and the other between Melville and Nickerson as they slowly reveal their demons to each other over the course of that long, witching-hour conversation. In the Heart of the Sea is more than just a diverting footnote to the legacy of Moby Dick -- it's an illuminating look at the sacrifices of brave men in ages past, a seafaring adventure, a survival yarn, and a meditation on courageous journeys both public and private.