In the Heart of the Sea movie review: gruelling lost at sea drama sinks like a stone

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There are a few of us left who can still remember a world where there were no Hemsworth brothers. Given the ubiquity of Australia’s home-grown hunks, who seem genetically designed to appear in cologne commercials, perhaps it was only a matter of time before a yo-ho-ho-Hemsworth emerged, sashaying locks of beach-brown hair from stern to bow.

If the family brand is built on anything it’s the perception Liam, Luke and Chris – the last the most famous of the three, largely due to his performances as hammer-wielding superhero Thor – are the sort of blokes who know how to raise a sail and tie knots.

In director Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea, the first time we see Chris Hemsworth he’s up the top of a ladder repairing a roof. Hemsworth plays Owen Chase, a seafaring man’s man who ventures out with a crew (circa the 1820s) on a mission to return with a boat load of whale oil.

Forced to be second in command to a captain (Benjamin Walker) less deserving of the job than he, and certainly less photogenic, Chase and co encounter little luck until a strange man in Ecuador informs them of a place where whales swim as far as the eye can see. The only catch is the giant demon whale among them – though by that time they’ve stopped listening.

The story is inspired by a real-life maritime disaster that inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick. Melville is a character in the film, played by Ben Whishaw, who sits down for a long interview with traumatised survivor Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson). Their conversation forms a framing device.

Nickerson has long repressed his memories (though surprisingly chose to decorate his study with miniature ships in bottles). At first he won’t talk but then he won’t stop, yabbering on about how the crew travelled “where knowledge ended and speculation began” and “headed to the edge of sanity.”

Bland performances, the existence of not one likeable, well-developed character and a drab slow-footed storyline quickly dampen the mood. But In the Heart of the Sea’s tawdry visual design is something else. On a purely technical level this is the worst made Hollywood movie in recent memory, astonishingly amateurish for such an accomplished director (whose classics include Apollo 13, Willow and Cocoon).

Howard recruited the same cinematographer (Anthony Dod Mantle) and editors (Mike Hill and Dan Hanley) who gave his previous film Rush, an enjoyable Formula One racing move, its frenetic chutzpah. Maybe he thought he could bring the same buzzing energy to the ocean; the result is a seasick film incapable of staging simple dialogue exchanges without flopping about like a cut snake.

Using jumpy handheld cameras on an old-style boat set, which must roll and bounce a little regardless, is perhaps a bold move. But nothing compared to Howard’s dog’s breakfast approach to shooting and compiling images – from high and low angles to off-centre framing, extreme close-ups, long shots and pan and zooms, often in the same scene.

Pre-voyage moments are relatively nondescript but when the boat starts a-rockin’ things go haywire pretty quick. An early whale hunting scene feels green-screened to within an inch of its life and the narrator’s moments, supposed to be quiet and reflective, are appallingly shot and edited. Ben Wishaw and Brendan Gleeson barely move a muscle but the camera careens about like a pissed sailor.

Advice to the cinematographer should have been: go home, you’re drunk. And while Hemsworth and the rest of an almost entirely male cast (including a completely wasted Cillian Murphy) aren’t to blame for the sinking ship, nor are they able to imbue the film with any real human interest. Gleeson comes the closest but his natural gravitas, up against all that discombobulating camera work, is very much lost at sea.

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