Tension buoys “In the Heart of the Sea”

The stranger looks askance as he listens to a one-armed sea captain talk about a “demon” in the form of a 100-foot-long alabaster white whale.

“Now this white whale, did he dance a jig and pick your pocket as well?” second mate Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy) puckishly asks. At that moment in Ecuador, he does not realize he, too, will be hunted and haunted by that very creature.

“In the Heart of the Sea” based on the book of the same name by former Pittsburgher Nathaniel Philbrick, dramatizes the story of the doomed whale ship Essex, the real-life inspiration for Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick.”

The movie opens in Nantucket, Mass., in 1850 with Melville (Ben Whishaw) offering boarding house operator Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) cash for three months’ lodging for a single night of talk. The taboo, torturous subject is what happened on the Essex, on which Nickerson set sail as an orphaned 14-year-old three decades earlier.

The tension between the capable first mate, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), and the privileged but inexperienced captain, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), is palpable as the ship searches for whales.

Blubber is the prize that will be boiled into oil. First though, a mammal must be harpooned and pierced with a lance that causes the whale to bleed and choke (and send a shower of blood raining down on the men) before it’s towed to the ship and carved up.

Not only is the Essex commanded by a greenhorn who decides to “test” the men by sailing into a savage storm, but the ship has yet to locate any whales. “To return to port without even a single barrel [of whale oil] would be a mistake,” Chase warns but the ship’s luck seems to turn around when sperm whales are spotted and the call is, literally, “All hands on deck.”

But fortune turns to misfortune when the men, on a rare stop in Ecuador, hear about the white whale and hundreds of others in the same vicinity. It’s too tempting for the bland Pollard who figures if the Essex sets sail immediately, it can be home in six months with a bounty of whale oil and the approval of his father. Chase can make good on his promise to return to his wife, pregnant when he left.

 

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