Title: In The Heart Of The Sea
Director: Ron Howard
Major Players: Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland
Out Of Five: 2.5
Ron Howard has been the darling of American film goers – and the American Academy – since he first ventured behind the camera. Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Frost/Nixon have all showed he can make movies about serious subjects that are not only good but have a popular appeal. But in his more recent offerings he’s shown signs of losing his touch and his latest, In The Heart Of The Sea, has done the unthinkable in the States. It’s tanked.
No pressure, then, on a film that opens here on Boxing Day in the wake of a certain blockbusting sci-fi. The story will sound familiar and that’s because it’s based on the true events that inspired Herman Melville’s classic, Moby Dick. In 1820, the whaler The Essex set sail from Nantucket charged with returning with a cargo of valuable whale oil. But it encountered a huge white whale, one with intelligence and an almost human desire for revenge. And the story is related to Melville (Ben Whishaw) by the last surviving member of the crew, the aging Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson). A story, then, of courage, friendship, class distinction and ambition, a vicious whale and 90 days adrift in an open boat …..
So what’s gone wrong? Part of the problem lies with the story itself, one that doesn’t allow us to invest in most of the characters. The focus is very much on the main ones – first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) and the commander of The Essex, Captain Pollard (Benjamin Walker) – with the others rather poorly fleshed out (pun not intentional). And that makes it hard to get much out of the crew’s ordeal when they’re adrift in open boats, thousands of miles from anywhere, or to muster any interest in their fate. There’s one exception and that’s the young Tom Nickerson, played with energy and spark by soon-to-be-Spiderman, Tom Holland. If anything, your sympathy lies with the whales rather than the humans, especially during the hunting scenes and when the whalers are soaked by a rain of blood and seawater once they’ve captured their prey.
There are sizeable sections where the film is just plain dull and that, again, is down to the sketchily drawn characters. Even its strong visuals can’t totally save it. Every time it starts to get really tedious, along comes the giant white whale to liven things up and he really is something of a whopper, with a tail you wouldn’t argue with. That said, we don’t really get especially close to him, apart from his hide as he swims along, so it’s difficult to say exactly how realistic this creation really is. But the aerial shots of him as he wreaks havoc on the ship and the open boats are impressive, as is that tail. Perhaps the film should have been re-named Tail, if only to save any confusion with a certain Jolie-Pitt project currently in cinemas.
The whole thing has an all-pervading old-fashioned feeling to it, one that’s perilously close to hackneyed. The hero, Chase, has been promised a captaincy, but has to settle for first mate yet again on The Essex, losing out to Captain Pollard, who comes from a better family. So they’re at loggerheads right from the start and, because Chase is clearly the much better seaman, it makes for conflict that combines Mutiny On The Bounty with Moby Dick, but without Captain Ahab, of course. Sort of Moby On The Bounty.
It’s not an especially bad film, nor is it especially good and it’s certainly not what you expect of Howard, especially as it re-unites him with key people from a number of previous, and more successful, films: Hemsworth is one and cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle, who was responsible for those pulsating motor racing scenes in Rush, is another. While the action sequences are good enough, they’re just not enough to keep a grip the audience. It’s all rather soggy.
In The Heart Of The Sea is released in cinemas on Boxing Day, Saturday, 26 December and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Christmas Eve, Thursday, 24 December.