It is the winter of 1820 and the New England whaling ship Essex is assaulted by something no one could believe: a whale of mammoth size and will, and an almost human sense of vengeance. The real-life maritime disaster would inspire Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. But that told only half the story. In the Heart of the Sea reveals the encounter’s harrowing aftermath, as the ship’s surviving crew is pushed to its limits and forced to do the unthinkable to stay alive. Braving storms, starvation, panic and despair, the men will call into question their deepest beliefs, from the value of their lives to the morality of their trade.
Based upon Nathaniel Philbrick’s best seller about the dramatic true journey of the Essex, Chris Hemsworth stars as Owen Chase, the vessel’s veteran first mate. Benjamin Walker (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) plays the inexperienced Captain Pollard, and Cillian Murphy (The Dark Knight Rises) is the second mate Matthew Joy. Ben Whishaw (Spectre) features as the novelist Herman Melville, whose inquiries into the event three decades after they occurred helped bring the story to light. Details are revealed to him by Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the man who was once the youngest sailor on board the Essex, and who remains haunted by the tragedy. While Moby-Dick is fiction, In the Heart of the Sea brings to life the saga that would fuel Melville’s defining and enduring novel.
Unfortunately, unlike other Ron Howard-directed movies (and previously I had considered him a master storyteller – think Apollo 13 and Frost/Nixon, to name but two), this one is seriously underwhelming. A lot of that has to do with the fact that visual effects and some special cinematography not withstanding, most of it is downright boring. I believe he simply picked the wrong vehicle and tried to pump it up, but it just didn’t work because much of the tension has an artificial feel to it.
The fact that apart from the larger than life character played by Hemsworth (who is loud and proud and macho), hardly any personality is shown by the other actors, doesn’t aid the cause. It is almost as if most are virtually non-existent, or didn’t want to put their hands up. Severely disappointing.
As riveting as Tom Hanks was in Cast Away or, more recently, Robert Redford in All Is Lost, the intrigue is, by and large, missing when this crew starts drifting on the high seas in little rowboats. I think the real problem is that we don’t really care enough and all along we are rooting for the whale. I reckon the best way to look at this Ron Howard film is that at least he now has it out of his system and he can go back to making far more enthralling pictures.
So, In the Heart of the Sea is hardly a whale of a tale or, perhaps, that should read it is a wail of a tale. Rated M, it scores a 5½ out of 10.
Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson
Release Date: 3 December 2015
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television