IN THE HEART OF THE SEA sank in a big way with both critics and public in 2015, harpooned by reviews that ranged from tepid to scathing and, like the jinxed ship and crew it portrays, returned from a hopeful commercial voyage starved of profit.
Director Ron Howard and team obviously put their backs into trying to make a Great movie, out of a–well, a whale of a tale, but they didn’t properly chart some navigation issues with the script (loose ends, thematic straying, framework that’s both too-tidy and unwieldy) and, frankly, a crew of actors too green for the heavy weather of an Epic.
Taken from Nathaniel Philbrick’s non-fiction book, Charles Leavitt’s self-consciously archaic script (with modern ecological-message ballast below decks) recounts the story of the doomed Essex, lost, along with most of its crew, on a whaling expedition in 1820. Not just lost, but attacked, demolished and hounded by a giant, intelligent and vengeful whale, which then became the “Moby Dick” of Herman Melville’s seminal American metaphor.
The bare bones of the story are the stuff of survival-movie manna, and the stunning production design alone warrants viewing, but Howard’s gift for visual panache not only has to haul the unsure script along, he needed to steer convincing performing of it from a cast that just aren’t up to it. Apart from Brendan Gleeson’s typical solid work (as the witness-narrator to Ben Whishaw’s limpid Melville) the acting mostly falls into the experiential conundrum that dogs many recent period pieces: these young guys don’t look or sound like they’ve ever been twenty yards from the beach, let alone near blistered hands or salt- sweating labor. The New England accents are forced, with star Chris Hemsworth a regrettable ringleader of ear-clang, swinging away manfully but missing by ‘yaawdz’.*
Script and speech springing leaks, the 121 minutes are gorgeous to look at, and the CGI effects are top rate. All the care that went into the recreated backgrounds and creatures still wasn’t sufficient to pull crowds, and an expenditure of $100,000,000 belly-flopped like mighty Moby himself when only $94,000,000 came back worldwide.
Partially shot off the Canary Islands. With Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland, Frank Dellane, Jordi Molla (brief but nice bit), Charlotte Riley (poorly utilized). The Whale (unbilled) is sensational.
*In the old days–the Old Movie Days–the 1930s through the mid 70s–actors of those generations were, by default, not all that far removed from the cowboys, soldiers and explorers they costumed up as, under the directorial piloting of similarly tradition-raised buzzards like John Ford, Howard Hawks or Raoul Walsh. The attitudes, carriages and inflections of the previous century echoed in their work. John Wayne, Spencer Tracy or Gregory Peck were not plucked out of a covered wagon or a foxhole but they knew or worked with people who were, and they convinced us that their make-believe was authentic (in effect making it so).
Today, it too often comes off as posing based on posing, and here it doesn’t sell. So you get Pearl Harbor. (one marvelous exception coming to mind, as long as we’re all nautical, would be Master And Commander, which feels real from stem to stern). Plain historical time and distance has Howard’s cast adrift on their own sheltered knowledge raft. Sorry, lads.