IN THE HEART OF THE SEA (Ron Howard). 122 minutes. Some subtitles. Opens Friday (December 11). See listing. Rating: NN
The story of the whaling ship Essex is a remarkable one, and not just because it’s said to have inspired Herman Melville to write Moby-Dick.
Rammed by a gargantuan white whale in 1820, stranding its crew in three lifeboats in hopeless conditions 2,000 nautical miles off the coast of South America, the Essex stands (or rather, sank) as a lesson in humility for seafaring men, who went out too far to hunt and became themselves hunted.
Nathaniel Philbrick’s bracing 2000 history, In The Heart Of The Sea, finds the primal terror at the core of that story, knitting the accounts of those who came back into a gut-wrenching survival tale of men pushed beyond their limits by circumstance and misfortune.
Ron Howard’s adaptation of Philbrick’s book is just sort of there – a floppy, limp drama that only occasionally rouses itself to the sort of intensity Philbrick describes. Actors stand around in stiff period costumes and yell against a green-screen backdrop, but we understand nothing of the characters’ ordeal. It’s an epic tale of nautical peril that’s too respectful to even say the word “cannibalism,” let alone depict the act.
Hobbled from the very beginning by a dopey framing sequence in which a young Melville (Ben Whishaw) interviews one of the Essex survivors (Brendan Gleeson) some three decades after the incident, Howard’s movie is a weirdly stuffy undertaking.
The pacing is lumpy, making you yearn for Peter Weir’s efficient, engaging storytelling in Master & Commander: The Far Side Of The World a decade ago, and the visual aesthetic an ungainly mixture of tiny HD cameras (deliberately aping the wave-bobbing strategy of Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s terrific 2012 documentary Leviathan) and flat close-ups and mid-shots. Yes, Benjamin Walker, Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy and Tom Holland lose a lot of weight as starving sailors no, their suffering is not conveyed in a particularly dramatic or interesting manner.
(Adding insult to injury, the 3D presentation at Wednesday’s preview seemed dingy and murky, even in daylight scenes, but that might simply mean that Scotiabank needs to replace the projector bulb in auditorium 13.)
What’s most frustrating is that In The Heart Of The Sea is precisely the kind of story Howard can make absolutely gripping. Apollo 13, his best film, is a thriller about resourceful people surviving an unexpected disaster and triumphing against impossible odds. Twenty years later, he’s taken an even more unbelievable story and rendered it utterly inert. Damnation.