In The Heart Of The Sea

9 December 2015 | 8:16 pm | David O’Connell

"The end result is a competent adventure story of men against the ocean."

Obsessed by the story, writer Herman Melville (Ben Wishall) pays the last survivor of the Essex to give his recollection of the last trip of the Nantucket Whaler. The tale he tells is one of conflict between an experienced first mate, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), and the newly minted scion of an old nautical family (Benjamin Walker) as they sail to unexplored territories in search of whale oil. Upon finding an elusive heard, the ship is attacked by the largest whale any of these sailors has ever seen. A whale that is willing to hunt them even after it has sunk their ship.

The result is a detailed film that certainly hits every point you could want from a nautical adventure; the dangerous elements, a disgruntled crew, class divide, leadership battles, a mysterious sea monster – In The Heart Of The Sea ticks every box with the due diligence of a Quartermaster. Director, Ron Howard, turns this into something that is part historical object, part boy’s own adventure, and part battle for survival. 

Howard tucks the camera in close for In The Heart Of The Sea. For inanimate objects this gives a greater appreciation of texture, adding to the sense of historical detail projected in this film. When it comes to characters, this feels like a missed opportunity. Below decks it adds to the sense of claustrophobia, but on the open water this design choice looses the perspective of agoraphobia. That overwhelming sense of space that would only add to this struggle against the elements. 

Hemsworth puts in a solid performance, and is really in his element when it comes to the more action-oriented scenes on the boats. Unfortunately when the crew is stranded on the open ocean, he lacks the light and shade to push a solid emotional performance into something greater. On the other hand the framing device, with Ben Wishall as Melville, Brendan Gleeson as a survivor of the Essex and Michelle Fairley as his wife, is just dripping in sorrow and depth. It really seems the emotional heart of the film is after the events instead of the experience. 

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The end result is a competent adventure story of men against the ocean, that may have inspired a literary classic. At times beautiful and with sequences that beggar belief, it is just incapable of holding that level for the majority of the run. A solid film, but at this stage of Howard’s career, with the obvious effort and money that have been placed into this production, you can’t help but wish for something grander.

Originally published in X-Press Magazine