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In the Heart of the Sea review: a not so well-spun seafaring yarn

Aleesha Matharu | Updated on: 5 December 2015, 0:22 IST

This is one of those movies where you see the trailer and believe it's got all the ingredients right: adventure on the stormy seas, giant whales, tales of survival, Ron Howard, and, of course, Chris Hemsworth.

But the result is a film that's more than just a tad underwhelming.

Billed as the story that inspired Moby Dick, Howard's adaptation of Nathaniel Philbrick's book is old-fashioned and it recounts the true story of the Essex, a Nantucket whale ship that sank after being attacked by a giant sperm whale.

A messy narrative

The story is told via a very extensive flashback. The narrative is super messy - we periodically get to see Herman Melville (Ben Wishaw) having a sit-down with an old Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), trying to go over the details of when a young Nickerson (Tom Holland) had the misfortune of being one of 21 young whalers on board the Essex.

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The Essex had sailed from Nantucket on a two-and-half-year voyage around the coast of South America to bring back barrels of whale oil - a precious resource that all but kept the world running before mankind discovered drilling.

As a young cabin boy, Nickerson saw and later testifies the tension that existsed between the ship's untested 29-year-old captain, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker - from Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), and his first mate, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth).

Unfortunatley, it was their destiny to rub one another the wrong way: Pollard hails from a well-established seafaring family. Chase, who has humbled beginnings, is the more knowledgeable and experienced seaman by far. He resents having been passed over for a promotion.

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When the Essex sails into remote waters, disaster strikes when they encounter a 100-foot scarred white behemoth. With a singular flick of a massive tail, the Essex is knocked about and sinks.

The survivors cram themselves onto three jerry boats in desperate straits. The lack of food even drives them to cannibalism during a months-long journey.

Nifty production design

If the narrative is messy, the production design makes up for it; you can practically taste the sea water.

At one point, young Nickerson has to jump inside the skull of a recently harpooned whale. It's repulsive to watch, but shocking and captivating at the same time, - because it's not something any of us have ever seen before or will ever see.

The editing is very choppy, making it unnecessarily difficult to follow everything going on in the film's more complicated action sequences.

Lost in the creative doldrums

Howard can be a wonderful filmmaker. Over the course of a decades-long career, he's demonstrated his knack forsuspense (Apollo 13), pacing (Frost/Nixon), insight (Parenthood) and atmosphere (Rush).

Don't get me wrong, there are some good moments here. But there's no depth to any of his subjects.

He can't even move you to true empathy when the actors are wasting away under a blazing sun with next to no food or water.

Manic about authenticity

If there's one thing you have to credit this film for, it's attention to authenticity - so much so that the actors were put on a crippling diet of just 500 calories a day to shed the pounds necessary to portray the crew's lengthy ordeal at sea.

Hemsworth, for instance, reportedly lost 15 kilos in just four weeks - all while continuing to film so that it would appear to be gradual.

A still from the film.

The mates

Hemsworth delivers superbly as the no-nonsense leader and Walker strikes a delicate balance as a spoilt brat who is loathsomely incompetent, yet still likeable.

Cillian Murphy, one of the shipmates, is utterly wasted. He's an outsider throughout and you really can't care if he lives or dies. Tom Holland (who's slated to be the next Spiderman), on the other hand, pulls his weight.

The verdict

Not Ron Howard's best by a long shot. Still, a reasonably robust high-seas adventure even though it's a little all over the place.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5

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First published: 5 December 2015, 0:13 IST
Aleesha Matharu @almatharu

Born in Bihar, raised in Delhi and schooled in Dehradun, Aleesha writes on a range of subjects and worked at The Indian Express before joining Catch as a sub-editor. When not at work you can find her glued to the TV, trying to clear a backlog of shows, or reading her Kindle. Raised on a diet of rock 'n' roll, she's hit occasionally by wanderlust. After an eight-year stint at Welham Girls' School, Delhi University turned out to be an exercise in youthful rebellion before she finally trudged her way to J-school and got the best all-round student award. Now she takes each day as it comes, but isn't an eternal optimist.