Well-crafted but insufficiently thrilling adventure from Ron Howard, with Chris Hemsworth
A white whale and a brave sea captain make director Ron Howard’s latest sound like Moby-Dick. It isn’t quite. It is however based on the fascinating story which inspired Herman Melville’s 1851 novel, which was brought to life in 2000 by Nathaniel Philbrick’s nonfiction bestseller, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. This ambitious adaptation should have been a contender. Instead it’s a rollicking wet yarn with some high seas, doldrums and morally challenging cuisine. But how could Howard’s well-crafted adventure lack thrills?
Ben Whishaw plays Melville, who coaxes traumatised sailor Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) to speak of his fateful trip aboard the Essex. We see how the young Nickerson (played beautifully in lengthy flashbacks by new Spider-Man Tom Holland) watched this horrible story unfold, making him the eyewitness Melville needs to pen his classic.
We also meet Chris Hemsworth as First Mate Owen Chase, a heroic figure who’s more Mark Wahlberg than Gregory Peck and coming to the Essex without his promised captaincy. Instead, posh captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) is the inexperienced commander, with the stalwart crew – including Chase’s pal Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy) – almost immediately running into problems. In Ecuador, they hear of a vengeful white whale which they encounter when hunting in the Pacific. Sure enough, the Essex is set upon and destroyed by it. Disappointingly, the beast is rather patchy, unlike the scarred and blazing albino of John Huston’s 1956 take on Moby-Dick.
What stops this being as exciting as it was intended to be? An overdependence on CGI certainly. Also, we like whales. It’s hard to cheer them being killed by sailors who, through no fault of their own, look like soggy hipsters. The research, the design, it’s all there but the passion is not, nor the danger of, say, Master and Commander. In the Heart of the Sea is watchable enough. It just doesn’t harpoon us the way its maker intended.
General release from Sat 26 Dec.