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In the Heart of the Sea
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In the Heart of the Sea

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For his follow-up to the decent racing drama Rush, Ron Howard has plumped for something part Master & Commander, part Jaws, and part Valhalla Rising. Thanks to the auteur visions of their respective directors, those movies were about more than men stuck on boats together. Sadly, In the Heart of the Sea is closer to The Perfect Storm in terms of its sheer corn-fed hokiness.

This is a 2015 film based on a 2000 non-fiction novel, about the sinking of the Nantucket whaling ship the Essex in 1820, which inspired Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, published in 1851. The movie frames the story with one of the Essex survivors telling the story to Melville in 1850. It’s meta-madness!

First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) is headhunted to join Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) on the fateful whaler. They’re not to return without a hold full o’ whale oil. But where are all the pesky whales? The Essex must voyage deeper into uncharted oceans in search of a pod of whales led by a white monster with a penchant for headbutting boats and swatting humans with its tail. Their first encounter is almost ruinous, and then they must find their way home with minimal supplies while the creature stalks them.

The script is by Charles “Seventh Son” Leavitt and it contains no surprises and precious little rhythm or poetry. Character arcs progress in exactly the way you’d predict from point A to death or redemption.

Was Ron Howard the right guy to direct this? He’s a high-class hack who has elicited average performances from a mediocre script. The film’s title points to something mythic but there’s no sense of myth in the actual story on screen – rather, a clunky and corny action-adventure which awkwardly gives way to a tiresomely drifting final act. A key moment of savage desperation is crudely elided, and I wonder if a bolder director may have brought home the horror by showing rather than simply telling.

The look of the film has that eerie toy-town greenscreen fuzz last seen extensively in The Hobbit. At times – on land – it can appear painterly. But much of the on-sea action looks like it was shot in a leisure centre swimming pool.

Hemsworth is a fine presence with a serious glare, but is he an actor? As drinking water dwindles and desperation sets in, makeup does most of the heavy lifting. He’s not helped by the stolid nature of his character. It’s the kind of dull role Kevin Costner was often asked to play in his heyday before he went nasty and interesting.

The crew is mostly made up of oh-it’s-that-guy British character actors. Amongst them is Tom Holland, last seen battered by the sea in 2012’s The Impossible, and soon to be Spider-man. But, for all the film’s spectacle and bombast, the most affecting scenes are those between Brendan Gleeson, as the survivor, and Ben Wishaw, as Melville. These scenes are subtle and movingly played by actors of consummate skill.

To be honest, I wouldn’t have minded watching the whole story play out this way, in this little room. Or perhaps just have Brendan Gleeson read Nathaniel Philbrick’s book to me and let me picture a better movie in my mind.

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