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I’ve never seen a whale do that.

Movie

In the Heart of the Sea
(2015)

 

I guess one fortunate side effect of In the Heart of the Sea’s (and, while we’re about it, Ben-Hur’s) box office failure is that there’s precious little chance that Timur Bekmambetov will get the chance to embark on his much wished for Moby Dick remake any time soon. In the Heart of the Sea is a Little Ronnie Howard film, which means it’s about as functional and journeyman an account of the true life tale that inspired Herman Melville’s massive beast of a novel as you could get. Apart from the cinematography, that is.

Anthony Dod Mantel has impressed with his work on a number of movies, not least lending fizz to Danny Boyle flicks that would otherwise be mostly forgettable; T2: Trainspotting is sure to benefit from his stylings. And for the likes of Dredd, and Howard’s last movie Rush, his sensibility was perfectly suited to the material. Here, though, it’s just all wrong. You need a lenser who will get the viewer right in there with the sheer awe and terror of being up close and personal with a pissed-off island of blubber, and the debilitating isolation of being adrift on the open sea, thousands of miles from home. Instead, Mantel conversely ensures we are painfully conscious of how localised and water tank-bound this is; the colours are a discord of garishly overstruck greens, with close-ups and medium shots screaming blue screen fakery, and (admittedly more Howard’s fault than Mantle’s) there’s too frequently a disastrous distancing between the main players and the elements they’re supposedly squaring off against.

Apart from that, though.

The story can’t help but being an involving one, even if the approach never escapes the realm of cliché. That may not be so surprising, given that Charles Leavitt’s resume (the likes of K-PAXBlood Diamond and Warcraft) doesn’t exactly shout literary stature. Adapting Nathaniel Philbrick’s factual book, he frames the tale of the doomed whaling vessel Essex with Melville himself (Ben Whishaw) visiting the only surviving member of the crew, Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson, played by Spider-Man Tom Holland in his younger incarnation; as I make it, Gleeson’s playing a guy in his mid-forties, so the years, booze and nightmares have really taken it out of him). Melville gradually coaxes the story out of Thomas, in accordance with the reluctant-but-needing-to-get-it-off-his-chest rulebook.

And, when we meet the crew, they’re also wholly two-dimensional types; the inexperienced, insecure captain (Benjamin Walker), the experienced, dependable first mate (Chris Hemsworth, adopting a Boston Thor accent, by way of Oz), and even then, those with only the single dimension like the second mate (Cillian Murphy), only notable for being the first mate’s Bessie mate, and the rotten cousin of the captain (Frank Dillane).

Embracing the true story should mean In the Heart of the Sea doesn’t necessarily take obvious turns, but it appears the account has been rather embellished, which would certainly explain why it’s replete with Hollywood turns of events (raising the question, why not just do Dick again; no, Timur, that doesn’t mean you). Occasionally there’s ’s a moment that suggests greater depth (it’s as much the first mate’s own desire for “striking” whale oil that leads to the stricken Essex), but apparently the captain and first mate actually got on pretty well. There was no cover up of what transpired for Chris to so righteously rail against. As for the pursuit by the whale, through thick and thin, the stuff Jaws are made of… Well, that in itself is probably why it didn’t happen. At least the eventual landing on a desolate island and subsequent returning to sea is factual (during the course of which, cannibalism becomes their first, second and third course), but by that point, you’re half expecting the whale to come walloping up the beach after them.

I tend to be quite down on Howard, mainly because I don’t think he’s even a particularly proficient Hollywood genre-hopper, yet somehow, he has been regularly feted for his antiseptic offerings. His flair for comedy in his first few movies has given way to a yearning for dramatic meat (that unaccountably yielded an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind), and only occasionally since the ’80s has he turned in something above average (Apollo 13RansomRush). The most damning indictment being his Dan Brown trilogy, which has seen him unstoppably churning out critically-lambasted pictures that even Robert Langdon devotees can’t defend, but which still somehow make money (although, we’ll see how that goes with Inferno).

In the Heart of the Sea is earnestly faux-reverent to the material but in that entirely fake, Hollywood period sense, from the Roque Banos score and on to director of Far and Away’s facility for historical immersion. Howard even gets in anachronistic reverence for marine mammals on the part of Hemsworth as the crew come in for their first kill. Because, you know, whales. You very rarely get any sense of why Howard makes the movies he does – on a whim, or toss of a coin, or call from his agent, presumably – which accounts for why the results are invariably so slipshod, makeshift and forgettable.

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