In the Heart of the Sea is an enjoyable retelling of the plight of the whaling ship Essex, which was sunk in 1820 by a sperm whale. Of all the major artistic works to have been inspired by the incident, Ron Howard’s new movie is perhaps the most simplistic, but it achieves its aims. Awash in watery light and soft hues, it’s a lullaby of a movie on a sensory level and mostly solid, if a little ordinary, in its storytelling. The film unfolds from a conversation between author Herman Melville (played sensitively by Ben Whishaw, who always looks on the brink of tears) and Essex survivor Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), who was a teenager while onboard. This being a film from Hollywood’s eternal golden boy, the incidents are told through the eyes of a young man’s innocence, and as such everything is relatively gentle. As historical movies go, this is of the kind wherein everyone is staid and life is like a landscape painting, suffused with stiff dignity.
The thrills come in the form of the whale, who is an exciting and dread-inducing presence onscreen. At times it feels a little like watching the same recurring T. rex attack dream that filmmakers will never seem to wake from, with the pursuant whale even so much as roaring in the middle of a spooky night. The bland man-lion Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), all unflinching heroism, is another cliché. But some poignant scenes offset these occasional moments of un-believability, such as when the stranded men question the reason for their disaster or when Nickerson recounts his most traumatic memories. They are simply worded scenes but deep.
The characters onboard are mostly indistinguishable (though Cillian Murphy, as Matthew Joy, is a standout) and much of the dialogue perfunctory, Old World, New Englander speak. If Melville’s epic is the most highbrow aesthetic interpretation of that fateful sinking, then Howard’s offering is more like a good picture book. Still, I enjoyed the movie. Told straightforwardly through lush visuals with a wholesome tone, it’s a soft adventure to cocoon in on a rainy winter day and a better movie than its widespread critical panning would lead you to believe.