Ron Howard's films have always been either man against man, man against circumstance or man against... space? Whether it's Formula One drivers battling each other or Tom Hanks squaring off against astrophysics, Howard's been able to capture grim determination remarkably well for someone that began their career on Happy Days.
The film opens on Ben Whishaw's nervy Herman Melville interviewing a typically gruff Brendan Gleeson about the fate of the Essex, a whaling ship that met a terrible fate at the hands of both a giant sperm-whale and its own crew. Through flashbacks, we're introduced to the crew that's led by Chris Hemsworth as the square-jawed, veteran first mate and Benjamin Walker as the hoity-toity captain. However, the real star of the show is the sperm-whale that became the basis for Moby Dick. When it's introduced, we really do get a sense of why it became such an important literary character and its few moments on screen are genuinely terrifying. However, that's merely half the story with the film eventually transitioning into a survivalist tale with the crew stranded and beginning to question themselves and the nature of their livelihoods as well.
Hemsworth is often dismissed as a pretty-boy actor who's more known for his physicality as opposed to his ability to actually act. While the film does see him go through a rigorous transformation, there's always a sense that he's not necessarily relying on it to help. Benjamin Walker, who's a criminally underrated actor, has all the best lines and serves as the closest thing to a human antagonist in the film. The supporting cast of Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland, Frank Dillane serve their roles reasonably well, however it's the whale that has easily the best scene of the film.
Anthony Dod Mantle's cinematography captures the brutal and visceral reality of whaling, which is every bit as disturbing as you think it is. One particular scene sees Tom Holland actually diving into the guts of a whale for the precious sperm oil within. Charles Leavitt's script spends a lot of time ensuring that we get the importance of the oil and how authentic everything is; almost to the point that it feels closer to a high-budget documentary on the subject than an actual story underneath it. Howard knows how to create a set-piece and there's a sense of dread and desperation in the second half of the film that becomes almost exhausting to watch.
In The Heart Of The Sea is an effective, old-fashioned, high seas adventure with some fantastic visuals and a strong performance by Hemsworth and Walker. It works best when it's at full mast, catapulting the viewer into the high seas and battling the squalls and the whale itself. However, the problem lies with its pacing and certain sections feel like they were left in to help win over Academy voters rather than servicing the story in any real way. It's a shame because with a little bit more concise editing and pacing, this could be have been great. As it stands, it's pretty good. What might have been more interesting, perhaps, is if Ron Howard attempted the story of Moby Dick itself rather than the factual retelling of its inspiration.