I saw In the Heart of the Sea on one of those stormy days where the air feels waterlogged and it seems like the endless drizzle has seeped into everything. That same feeling permeated every frame of Ron Howard’s latest feature, a film drenched with downpours and crashing waves as it recounts the true story of shipwreck and survival underpinning Herman Melville’s seafaring epic Moby Dick. The story lands somewhere between Castaway and Jaws, pitting a crew of sailors against a fishy foe and the harsh elements in turn. Melville himself (Ben Wishaw, recognizable as Q in the most recent Bond films) is our conduit to the film, a young writer who is attempting to extract the traumatic tale of the fate of the whaling ship Essex from its last remaining survivor, Thomas Nickerson (Brendon Gleeson). The story, recounted through flashbacks, is really that of First Mate Owen Chase (played by a suitably swarthy-looking Chris Hemsworth) and his attempts to first command, and eventually simply survive the ship’s ill-fated voyage for whale oil. At first, it appears that Chase’s foil is the silver-spooned Captain Pollard (Benjamin Walker), but as the disaster unfolds, the true threat is revealed to be nature itself.
In the Heart of the Sea is encrusted with dried-out, salty versions of some major acting talents, including Cillian Murphy as Chase’s teetotal best friend, Game of Thrones’ Michalle Fairley in a characteristically powerful and stoic performance as Nickerson’s long-suffering wife, and Tom Holland as the young version of Nickerson, in a heartfelt performance that belies a bright future for the 19-year-old actor (keep an eye out, as Holland is slated to play Spiderman in a future reboot).
The movie is a slow burn, drawing you in with some fast-paced whaling action (gotta love a good harpooning scene, right?) but largely focusing on the gradually increasing desperation of the stranded crew. Through close-ups awash with cold, feeble light and dripping with seawater, In the Heart of the Sea imbues you with the sort of quiet trepidation that comes from the knowledge of man’s insignificance in the face of nature’s raw brutality. As you watch Hemsworth transformed by the passing months from the muscular thunder-god we know and love into a skeletal, leathery husk, the sight of the ever-lurking white whale eventually inspires true dread. Ron Howard has created another compelling and beautifully shot work, although its box office performance was stunningly terrible – hard to get people to rally around a good whaling story these days. Best watched on a rainy day with your leatheriest friends.