In the Heart of the Sea (2015)

Based on the incredible true story that inspired Moby Dick.

In 1850, American author Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) listens intently to the troubled Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) as he relates his account of what happened to him and the crew of the New England whaling ship Essex in 1820.

Amongst the crew is a young wide-eyed Nickerson (Tom Holland), Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), his cousin Owen Coffin (Frank Dillane), first officer Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) and second officer Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy), an old friend of Chase’s.

Together, on a routine whaling expedition in the vast expanses of the ocean, they face great odds in the weather conditions, each other, and most of all, a giant enraged bull sperm whale.

'Thar She Blows!'
‘Thar She Blows!’

As the tagline suggests, this is not a straight adaptation of Herman Melville’s famous epic Moby Dick, but rather an exploration of the true story that inspired it. As such, it’s difficult not to bring any preconceived ideas about what In the Heart of the Sea may or may not do in relation to Melville’s tale, especially as the author himself appears in the film as the character that frames the very narrative.

Thematically, there doesn’t seem to be a lot outside of a basic survival premise and I feel there could be richer material awaiting in a longer cut, as there are hints of loyalty, betrayal and friendship — things apparent in Melville’s story, amongst its many other ambitious ideas. Does this lessen the experience though?

Surprisingly, not so much, provided expectations are managed. There are raucous thrills to be had on the tempestuous seas, which director Ron Howard, Rush (2013), realizes with aplomb. An early encounter with a savage storm is particularly tense and as one would hope, the whale encounters wrap you up in the chase, accompanied by a suitably paced score by Spanish composer Roque Baños, Evil Dead (2013). It’s these epic moments that make the film a worthwhile trip; just opt for the 2D presentation, as the 3D is thoroughly pointless.

Thor should've stayed in Asgard.
Thor should’ve stayed in Asgard.

Where the tale tends to be a bit ho-hum is when things become stripped down, with the narrative departing from the familiar Moby Dick aspects. Here, the characters are just drifting about as much as the story itself and while there are some compelling brutal dilemmas at hand, it occasionally threatens to derail interest. It is largely because of this section that I feel there could be a better, extended version out there, which could do a great deal more in creating a solid investment in the main players and their future predicaments.

On the acting front, the overall tone seems to be in ‘classic adventure’ mode, with the likes of Chris Hemsworth, Thor (2011), Benjamin Walker, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012), and Ben Whishaw, Spectre (2015), delivering their lines in a slightly theatrically accented way. It’s not bad, but does seem to rub against the ‘true story’ angle. Brendan Gleeson, The Guard (2011), is fine but nothing special, but the worst performance comes from Frank Dillane, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009), who mostly looks as though he’s anxiously forgotten his lines and become aware of the camera. The standout is 19-year-old Tom Holland, The Impossible (2012), who manages to deliver a subtle, naturalistic performance and will no doubt shine in his next role as Peter Parker/Spiderman.

When giant tuna strike back!
When giant tuna strike back!

If intrigued by high seas adventures, survival stories or a Moby Dick fan, you’ll likely find In the Heart of the Sea worth your time, even if it struggles to stay afloat in its second half.

If you’re looking for a more straightforward adaption of Moby Dick, I can wholeheartedly recommend director John Huston’s thrilling 1956 version, starring Gregory Peck as the obsessed Captain Ahab which features a tight script by renowned sci-fi author Ray Bradbury.

3.5 / 5 – Great

Reviewed by Steve Ramsie

In the Heart of the Sea is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia