Yarns don’t get more ripping than the story of Moby Dick – a fictional tale inspired by the real-life exploits of an early 19th century whaling ship which purportedly came off worst when it went up against a colossal, blubber-lined adversary in the form of a bull sperm whale. It’s this gargantuan clash which has captured the imagination of Ron Howard, who brings to the screen an adaptation of Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2000 book of that infamous nautical clash, In the Heart of the Sea (2015).
Roping in two key figures from his widely praised previous feature Rush (lead Chris Hemsworth and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle), Howard manages to navigate a solid if unremarkable adventure which should appease those families embarking on a post-Christmas Day cinema jaunt, particularly anyone who feels a little overstuffed on those exploits from a galaxy, far, far away. The film opens with Moby Dick author Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) tracking down the now much older, surviving member of the aforementioned whaling expedition, Thomas Nickerson (played by Brendan Gleeson before Tom Holland assumes the role in flashback).
Nickerson reluctantly recounts his time on the doomed voyage of the Essex, under the captaining of George Pollard, Jr. (Benjamin Walker) and the more experienced and clearly disgruntled first officer Owen Chase (Hemsworth). Heading out to sea for many months on a voyage he should be in charge of, the headstrong Chase also has an unborn baby on the way he’s keen to return home for. The doomed voyage takes a turn for the worst almost immediately when Pollard insists the ship does battle with a fierce storm, before the ultimate endurance test arrives in the gigantic form of the very mammal they are hunting for. In the Heart of the Sea offers up the kind of classic American folklore Howard has delved into before, and it’s to his credit that he’s willing to let Dod Mantle fully unleash his dynamic and offbeat visual style on the material.
The viewer is often placed right in the midst of the action in revealing, sometimes surreal, close-up – a device Howard has been pushing for almost a quarter century now since his underrated thriller Backdraft (1991). The whale attack on the besieged Essex is particularly awe-inspiring, and the flip from robust seafaring adventure to harrowing survivalist yarn is handled well. It’s unfortunate that the film never quite reaches that greatness it strives for. We seldom get a sense of comradely between the crew, save for the tension between Pollard and Chase, and supporting characters often feel extremely sketchy and underdeveloped. Despite the best efforts of the filmmakers, In the Heart of the Sea is a few knots away from being the transformative cinema experience intended.
Adam Lowes | @adlow76