I tried to read Moby Dick once. I failed. In the Heart of the Sea reminded me of that experience insofar as the synopsis was far more enticing than the product. Set in the early 19th century, at the height of the whaling industry, the film follows the story of The Essex and its disastrous encounter with; you guessed it, a giant white whale. Ron Howard’s film, which is based on a true story, falls into the usual clichéd roles we have come to expect of period films. There are the established families and the put-upon, more competent common man. There is the narrator, here a criminally underused Brendan Gleeson, who takes a back seat in his own story for the sake of the aforementioned contest of experience versus social hierarchy. Finally there is the character of Herman Melville, played by Ben Wishaw, who fulfils all the stereotypes of the plucky interviewer, showing no sign of the fame he would eventually achieve. True story or not, cinema should avoid clichés, but this film dives into their shallowest depths.
The story lacks subtlety at best and borders on preachy at worst. Howard really wants his audience to walk away environmentalists, but he also wants them to hate the white whale and cheer for the whalers. There are ways to marry these two ideas, but Howard has not found them. Still, the main flaw in this film is the lack of danger: very obvious CGI, and a general atmosphere of ‘meh’ pervades the film. In other words, despite the promise of a leviathan-esque whale, there is more threat in Monty Python’s killer rabbit.
Ultimately, the actors give very reasonable performances. Cillian Murphy steals every moment of screen time he has and Chris Hemsworth is a very competent lead. But Howard’s film is more of a Sky TV movie than a big screen monster. My advice is this: if you want a thrilling, seafaring, period film, buy Master & Commander and pretend the French are a big whale- you will have more fun that way.
Image: discutivo; Flcikr.com