Ron Howard’s latest directorial effort, In The Heart Of The Sea, tells the story of the telling of the story that inspired the literary classic Moby Dick.
It plays as a coming to life of the tale as relayed to Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) by ol’ Thomas Nickerson (Brendon Gleeson). As we see it, young Nickerson (Tom Holland) struggles to find his feet on board The Essex, a ship on an expedition to collect whale oil. A whale attacks the boat, and Nickerson observes the tensions between the crew, not least those between first-time captain Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and first mate/chiselled hero Chase Owen (Chris Hemsworth), dissipate as they face an increasingly dire quest for survival. In the interest of withholding spoilers, as well as you can for a true story that inspired a well-known book, we’ll stop there with the plot.
When we talked to actor Cillian Murphy, who plays crew member Matthew Joy, he told us that the film reminded him of the kind of films he used to watch with his father on a Sunday afternoon. Interestingly, Chris Hemsworth’s turn as Chase Owen has the feel of a good old fashioned leading man performance. Strong, handsome and unendingly charismatic, his Chase is the flawless, fearless leader. Not the most interesting character, certainly, but Hemsworth’s screen presence is something to behold.
If a great central turn from Hemsworth isn’t enough to pique your interest, how about lots of lovely shots of a nice boat in the middle of the sea? In The Heart Of The Sea has got lots of those. At its best, it looks incredibly striking.
Yet, In The Heart Of The Sea features a notable disparity in the quality of its elements. If the big, wide action shots of the boat look beautiful, too often the action sequences that take place within the boat don’t work. The camera sticks too closely to its cast, creating the effect of the film being in its own way. It’s too on top of itself.
There’s a lack of weight to much of the destruction, too. I understand the necessity of CG use in this film. Like everyone, I’ve seen good CG and bad CG. The problem here isn’t necessarily that it doesn’t look, at first glance, real. It’s that it doesn’t feel real. Things don’t move quite right and they don’t look like they’re there. In watching these scenes, I was distracted by the feeling that something wasn’t quite right. All these visual problems are exasperated by the 3D.
That’s also an example of an issue that afflicts In The Heart Of The Sea; there’s a sense of detachment that I felt through much of the film. The action sequences don’t connect, sure, but there are also serious script problems that contribute, too. The story lacks focus. It floats along, lost at sea like its cast of characters, going nowhere. That makes it difficult to engage with. Then there are the characters, all well underwritten. Once you recognise who the characters are, and they’re all obvious character types, it’s easy to predict what they’ll do and what will happen to them.
Fortunately, the film is boosted significantly by the performances of the cast. Perhaps fighting to be seen against the often striking visuals and the star showing from Hemsworth, the characters are brought to life, against the odds set by the script, by a series of terrific turns. Cillian Murphy’s Matthew Joy gets little to do in the first half, and there’s little to him, but the actor seizes every moment he gets and undergoes a startling physical transformation over the course of the film. Both Gleeson and Holland also stand out as different versions of Nickerson. These performances deserve a better script. There’s that disparity in quality again.
The score picks it up some, too. Created by Roque Baños, it’s at times grand and majestic, at others spooky and haunting, selling the isolation of being at sea. It livens up the action sequences, too, with its thunking and clattering.
The calibre of everyone involved means that even with all its flaws, In The Heart Of The Sea has brilliant moments scattered throughout. In particular, the last fifteen minutes really land. There’s payoff and story movement and emotion. If you have a great fifteen minutes, the end of the film is where you want them, too. There’s a lot to be said for a satisfying ending.
I normally don’t put much stock in star ratings on reviews. I understand the necessity, of course, but I find them frustrating in how reductive they are. In this instance, though, I came out thinking that almost everything you need to know about In The Heart Of The Sea can be communicated by a three star rating. It’s alright.
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