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Byron Shire
December 3, 2021

Cinema Review – In the Heart of the Sea

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Ron Howard has made so many good and popular (ie mainstream) movies that it is hard to imagine cinephiles ever conferring on him the breathless accolade of ‘great filmmaker’. From outer space to the circuits of Formula One to now the fathomless briny, he has persistently eschewed nastiness in favour of positivity, albeit with insight’s melancholy never far below the surface. This salty dog’s tale covers the events that inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick. Told in flashbacks, it has the ambitious but uncertain Melville (Ben Whishaw) hearing the recollections of Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), last surviving member of the crew of the ill-fated Essex. As a 14-year-old (Tom Holland), he sailed aboard the ship out of Nantucket, its commission to gather from the sea’s leviathans the oil that lit New England’s homes and streets.
There is a difference between rejoicing in the kill and telling it like it is – 1820 was another world, an age of uncushioned realities, and the men who hunted the whales were no armchair pussycats. Howard captures the virility of their chase, in rowboats and with hand-held harpoons, but when it’s done the faces of his blood splattered sailors are etched in remorse at the realisation of their savagery. It’s an incredibly moving moment (some critics must have been looking the other way). Tension builds when the Essex is forced to enter the Pacific. Between the patrician captain (Benjamin Walker) and self-trained first mate (Chris Hemsworth) there stews a Bligh/Christian mutual contempt, but more threatening to the venture is the legendary white sperm whale that stalks them – and there is more than just a hint of Jaws in many of cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle’s shots. CGI is exceptional – the ship ablaze at sea and the whale itself are wholly convincing – and, owing to the sympathetic performances, a dark secret of survival held on to for so long by old Nickerson is met with blunt acceptance. Subject matter will deter a lot of people, which is a pity, for this is a fantastic movie.

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