In the 1851 novel Moby-Dick, American writer Herman Melville expends 135 chapters and an epilogue documenting Captain Ahab’s calamitous obsession with the eponymous white whale.
Director Ron Howard seems to spend just as long treading water in his sprawling maritime adventure In The Heart Of The Sea, which dramatises the real-life disaster that inspired Melville to put ink-filled pen to parchment.
Truth is far more thrilling than the fiction in Charles Leavitt’s script, adapted from an award-winning book by Nathaniel Philbrick, which documents the ill-fated sailing of the whaling ship Essex in the winter of 1820.
The central battle for survival, punctuated by special effects-laden action sequences, should quicken our pulses and keep attentions afloat for more than two hours.
Unfortunately, Howard’s film springs a leak early on and gradually sinks without anchoring our affections to the characters as they confront the morality of their bloody trade and the chilling possibility that they will never embrace their loved ones again.
Howard employs a simple framing device to stitch together events in timelines 30 years apart. Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) visits emotionally crippled seaman Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) at his home on Nantucket Island.
“I want to hear what happened to the Essex,” Melville informs the seadog, who has never recounted this horrific episode, not even to his wife (Michelle Fairley).
Eventually, Nickerson acquiesces. In flashback, he recalls how inexperienced captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) stood nervously at the helm of the Essex, at the behest of the owners, Messrs Mason (Donald Sumpter) and Fuller (Richard Bremmer).
However, the crew, including Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy), looked to strapping First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) for their orders.
“This is your family now, for better or worse. Worse mostly,” Owen tells the young Tom (Tom Holland), a terrified whelp heading to sea for the first time.
One thousand leagues along the equator, the Essex encounters a monstrous creature of the deep, which rams the vessel and leaves the men stranded far from home.
“As I live and breathe, he’s mine,” barks Owen, pushing the survivors and himself to the brink of insanity in the aftermath of the attack.
In The Heart Of The Sea is a gung-ho tale of men who lived and perished on the waves in search of the lucrative whale oil that brought light to 19th Century America.
Hemsworth buckles his swash as the hunky hero, who allows his thirst for revenge to cloud his judgement and endanger the men under him.
Supporting performances, are lost in the Sturm und Drang of the water-logged set pieces and a climactic bout of cannibalism.
Alas, screenwriter Leavitt discards the characterisation and subtlety that could have saved the film.
In the Heart of the Sea, Released December 26