To meet the global demand for whale oil in the 19th century, ships would head to sea for years at a stretch following the migratory trails of whales to hunt and slaughter them at sea, boil the flesh to make oil and return to land with hundreds of barrels of the lucrative commodity.
Business being business, the benefits of such dangerous work was justified by the likelihood of success in spite of the enormous risk to both ship and crew.
In The Heart of The Sea explores the story of the whale legends that author Herman Melville used to craft his masterpiece Moby Dick.
Melville (Ben Wishaw – Q from Spectre) narrates the film as the young scribe travels to New England in search of the truth about the journey of The Essex, an actual whaling ship that was destroyed by a gigantic whale in the winter of 1820.
30 years on from the fateful voyage, Melville has tracked down one of the handful of surviving crew members – Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), who runs an Inn, and has not spoken to anyone about the ordeal he experienced as a young man aboard the Essex.
That catastrophe, as you’ve perhaps gathered, is the result of an enormous psychotic whale that rams and sinks The Essex, leaving the stranded crew to drift for months on end without sight of land.
Chris Hemsworth (Thor) plays Owen Chase, an outsider who has been promised captaincy of a whaling ship, but is relegated to First Mate duties in favour of an inexperienced young Captain – George Pollard (Benjamin Walker – Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter) who is the son of one of the shipping company’s owners.
Naturally the pair is in conflict throughout much of the film, until circumstances force them to reevaluate their relationship.
The first half of the film is full of action and drama with the plot geared towards establishing the dynamics of the different crew members, as we flash back and forth between present day (1850) New England as Nickerson tells his difficult tale, and 1820 when the Essex is at sea hunting whales.
It’s hard to fathom that whaling was actually a global industry (in Australia it was on par with wheat production) and a lifelong career for these men. As the film demonstrates in rich detail it is an arduous task where they face not only the dangers of life at sea, but the peril of close quarters battle with huge creatures that can smash a boat with the flick of a tail.
As mishaps befall the ship and the oil quota looks unlikely to be filled, Captain Pollard sets a course in search of fresh hunting grounds on unfamiliar seas, leading them to cross paths with a mammoth whale.
It’s once the action is done and dusted and the whale has destroyed the ship that the film really comes into it’s own.
The story of how these men survive for months adrift before washing up on a rocky island, and the desperate decisions that inform whether or not they may see home again, lifts the film into a whole other league.
All that is left of the Essex once she has been destroyed in a fierce confrontation with the whale, are the ship’s tiny whaling boats, a portion of the crew, and those sailor’s will to survive, and it is here that the film’s most intimate and harrowing drama unfolds.
Melville is left with a record of an incredible series of events, many of which he combined with his own experiences to write his masterpiece of Romanticism and American Renaissance.
Initially not a commercial success, as is so often the case with great artists, the novel Moby Dick found legendary status after Melville’s death in 1891.
The superb supporting cast including Cillian Murphy (The Dark Knight), along with director Ron Howard’s extraordinary production team, weaves a story so rich in detail that this classic work will become familiar to a whole new audience. Come for the action and leave with an epic tale.