Film Review | In the Heart of the Sea

Ron Howard churns out yet another prettily shot and populist-pitched genre epic that purports to tell the story that inspired Herman Melville’s Moby Dick

Whale of a time: Chris Hemsworth is back to hunt whales and increase your heart rate (if you’re so inclined)
Whale of a time: Chris Hemsworth is back to hunt whales and increase your heart rate (if you’re so inclined)

There’s an argument to be made for Ron Howard being a slightly thwarted Steven Spielberg. The former child actor – you’d remember him as the ginger-and-freckled Richie Cunningham from Happy Days – branched into directing at the tail end of the 60s and to be fair, his career trajectory has been as blessed as you could imagine.

From heartwarming sci-fi dramas (Cocoon) to equally heartwarming comedies (Parenthood, EDtv) all the way down to Oscar-winning darlings (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man), there’s a sense that Howard has done it all, and continues to do it with the blessing of both audiences and critics (on the whole).

Even his less critically successful efforts (namely the Dan Brown adaptations Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons) raked in audiences and ensured his high-powered status as Hollywood player continues to gain traction.

But there’s a sense that he’s never quite hit that sweet spot of cultural relevance that Spielberg continues to bask in almost by proxy (that he’s currently back in our purview with the more or less universally well-received Bridge of Spies says it all).

While he can be relied on to craft entertaining films that operate with a modicum of style and taste – there’s a comfortable, middlebrow waft to even his pulpiest work – Howard doesn’t have that strong a trademark.

And In the Heart of the Sea – a lushly constructed period drama sprinkled with generous ‘sea monster’ spectacle – is certainly a box-ticking exercise more than it is an artistic statement of intent.

It’s the story that inspired Moby Dick. In 1820, the New England whaling ship Essex collided with a giant whale, which to the misfortune of its beleaguered crew also appeared to possess human-like cunning and resilience.

Following the attack, the ship’s surviving crew – led by captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and veteran whaler Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) – struggle for their lives, braving storms, panic and starvation… with the captain and first mate struggling to keep their conflicting personalities from clashing. But how does the story reach us?


As it happens, then-budding author Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) visits the Essex’s last remaining survivor, Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), who was a mere 14 years old when he embarked on the voyage. Initially reluctant to share his story with the young author – who is in turn eager to get some workable material for his next book – Thomas’s wife (Michelle Fairley) encourages him to unburden his demons about the fateful voyage.

Perhaps the most notable thing about this otherwise fairly old-school adventure yarn – Charles Leavitt’s screenplay is developed from the Nathaniel Philbrick non-fiction book of the same name – is that it ensures you’re rooting for the powerful-but-hounded whale from the word go. It says something about our evolved attitudes towards animal cruelty: this isn’t Jaws, and the whalers are severely punished for their questionable trade.

The score by Roque Baños swells to a sad crescendo when the spears finally come out, and Howard deftly manipulates our sympathies from the humans to the whales and back again when the proverbial excrement hits the sea-bound fan.

The running time isn’t exactly lean – it edges close to the two-and-a-half hour mark – and indeed, there’s plenty of material, both narrative and thematic, that the story takes on: conflict between two men of different classes; ethics of the slave trade; man vs nature… all wrapped up in the emotionally dense framing device of Melville and the elderly Nickerson.

It’s not exactly a challenge that Howard meets squarely: he paints most of it up with a broad-brush positioned at a somewhat maudlin angle. The frame story is particularly clumsy, with Fairley’s Mrs Nickerson popping in from the shadows at a crucial moment to offer necessary closure.

And for all its complexity, the seabound story barely registers above cliché, with central performances hardly helping the matter. Hemsworth is dreamy and ever – made dreamier still for most, I’m sure, in period costume and battling the elements – but the brave underdog is a role he’s taken on previously to the point where it’s old hat now, while his erstwhile antagonist – Walker – has too limited a set of expressions in his thespian grab-bag to really convince.

But as per Howard tradition, it’s all impeccably constructed – with the ships and costumes ensuring we’re thrown into a lush-but-rough, and ‘lived in’ world and some strategically placed moments of spectacular scenery making for great eye-candy. The whales aren’t half bad too, as is to be expected from such an undertaking.

So in short, Howard wins again. Not Spielberg’s crown, though.