Director Ron Howard has certainly proven that he able to wring tension out of the simple sight of a cluster of man adrift and stuck in close quarters. Cast your mind back to Apollo 13, a film that arguably represents his high water mark, and remember the sense of claustrophobia that abounded in a story of astronauts floating helplessly through space. In the Heart of the Sea is familiar territory to some extent as its latter half sees Chris Hemsworth’s Nantucket whaler set adrift with crewmates following a devastating whale attack. Similarities end there for while Howard was able to breathe life into a simple story of comradeship and vaulting human endeavour, this story (inspired by a story that inspired a story) is as listless and dead-eyed as the very beast Chris Hemsworth hunts.
Adapted from Nathaniel Philbrick’s book, In the Heart of the Sea tells the tale of the ill-fated whaling ship Essex, attacked and sunk by a sperm whale in 1820 and would be the inspiration for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Set in the mid Nineteenth Century, the movie begins with Melville (Ben Whishaw) visiting Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) last survivor of the Essex to learn the details of a story that has inspired him to begin his latest novel. Initially reluctant, Nickerson eventually recounts the story of how the Essex, captained by George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) came to grief in its pursuit of an enormous white whale.
In the Heart of the Sea’s chief problem is that it presents us with the bare bones of something that would go on to be an interesting fiction. But Moby Dick this is not. Melville took inspiration from the story and used creative and dramatic licence to create something thrilling. Ron Howard’s movie gives us the basics of much of Moby Dick’s narrative, but shorn of the fictional elements that made it a success. This is akin to reducing a meal into its raw ingredients, removing the most interesting elements, than serving it back to a customer without the seasoning that elevates a relatively ordinary dish.
Roughly twenty minutes in and you feel like the movie has finished with any and all characterisation in which it’s prepared to indulge. Almost as soon as the crew sets foot on the deck of the Essex you can pretty confidently predict the trajectory of the story: Captain and First Mate will butt heads before a catastrophe leads to a grudging respect, a childhood friendship will be reinforced before tragedy most likely cuts it short and a young man will learn and earn his spurs the hard way. The film offers nothing in the way of curve balls or surprises as it slowly drifts towards a conclusion that offers little new.
Whishaw’s Melville scenes exist to remind us that the story will go on to inspire his most famous novel, but their inclusion in the movie presents two problems. Firstly, we are reminded that this narrative will be transformed into something infinitely more interesting; secondly, it’s an additional 25 minutes of slow-going teasing out of the story that needn’t be included.
Howard has opted for an aesthetic choice that gives the film a grubby, lived-in look as if to reinforce the idea that whaling was hard work for hard men. Rather than lend a dirty element of the real to proceedings, Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography gives the impression that the film has been shot through an old sock.
It’s an odd choice as it leaves the movie devoid of any sense of occasion. But then, Howard’s decision to give us half a story that has already been told is odd in itself.
Adventure, Action | USA, 12A | Warner Bros. Pictures | 26th December 2015 (UK) | Dir.Ron Howard | Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson, Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland