In the Heart of the Sea review: “a gruelling voyage for all concerned”

Chris Hemsworth is all at sea in director Ron Howard's much-anticipated retelling of the Moby Dick story

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★★

There, one is tempted to write, she blows. I can honestly say I’ve been looking forward to director Ron Howard’s tale of Nantucket whale ship the Essex, sunk by a giant cetacean in the South Pacific in 1820 and an inspiration for the great American novel Moby-Dick, for well over a year.

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That’s because they finished shooting it well over a year ago and its first release date was March 2015. (Word is they put it back to position it for possible awards. I suspect it may get best costume.) As a huge fan of giant-animal movies – King Kong, Jaws, even Orca… Killer Whale (itself fashioned after the obsessive man-versus-beast mythology of Moby-Dick) – I should have been the target audience for In the Heart of the Sea. 

Based on fact – specifically, accounts gathered in Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2000 book of the same name – and commanded by a master populist teller of true stories (Apollo 13, Rush, Frost/Nixon), it looked too big to fail. But fail it does, and fail it has at the US box office and beyond.

That its narrative approach is broad-brush need not be a problem. It might have been an epic on the scale of John Huston’s 1956 film, Moby Dick. But while Huston’s film was bedevilled by its own analogue special effects and rubber whales (foreshadowing the trouble with Jaws), Howard could afford state-of-the-art digital technology with his $100m budget. They also put a life-size replica of the Essex in a huge water tank at Leavesden studios in London. But the 90-foot white whale – the star of the show – had to be created in CGI. And that’s where the film starts to feel fake.

There is very little corporeal threat here, as Benjamin Walker’s hubristic captain and Chris Hemsworth’s aggrieved first mate lead a crew of mostly British and Irish actors (Cillian Murphy’s teetotal second mate, Tom Holland’s green cabin boy, plus Joseph Mawle, Gary Beadle and Murphy’s Peaky Blinders co-star Paul Anderson, who’s cruelly all but edited out) on a gruelling voyage for valuable whale oil in the days before whales had been hunted into near-extinction and become symbols of international conservation. I can’t have been the only bleeding-heart animal lover cheering the whales to victory.

First, we spy dozens of regular-sized sperm whales, which draw the ship 1,500 nautical miles from land. Like the backgrounds in the early Massachusetts shore scenes, they feel drawn on. When we finally meet the great white monster that duels with the Essex and wins, it only convinces when it’s underwater. Whenever it breaches the waves, it looks like a submarine with teeth.

Despite all the mythology at play – man versus nature, teamwork versus individualism, capitalism versus conservation – the story is linear and fairly basic: whale sinks ship, survivors survive, but not before a moral line is crossed, and Herman Melville (well played by Ben Whishaw) gets his novel, after extracting testimony from haunted survivor Brendan Gleeson in a clever framing device by screenwriter Charles Leavitt, which is the best and most emotionally affecting part of the film.  

You admire the cast for putting up with endless water-tank panic scenes amid crashing rigging and splashing tails but you never really connect with Moby, or with Hemsworth’s bland hero. Some of the best visuals – such as the scale of the whale revealed as it passes underwater – are straight out of Jaws, and for all of cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle’s artistry, endless foregrounded objects in sharp focus are clearly designed to show off the 3D in which it was exhibited, itself a loss of nerve in a relatively slight story.

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 In the Heart of the Sea is released in cinemas on Boxing Day