There's a good sea-faring epic hidden inside Ron Howard's adaptation of Nathaniel Philbrick's non-fiction book about the true-life shipwreck that inspired Herman Melville's Moby Dick. (And yes, I have just used three possessives in one sentence.) It's a shame that Mr. Howard can't find it, though to be honest the device in Charles Leavitt's script would require a more adventurous director to pull off: the sorry adventure of the Nantucket whaling ship Essex is told, a quarter of a century later, as a flashback by the sole living survivor of the shipwreck to the writer. It's a distancing effect that pulls the viewer away regularly, deadening and dampening the attempt at big-screen spectacle, replacing it with a literary conceit that puts the tale at one remove.
Distressingly enough, these are the best bits of the film - Ben Whishaw as Melville and Brendan Gleeson as the aged Thomas Nickerson give heft, depth and life to the concept, while the rousing sea epic lacks charismatic performances to carry it through (neither Chris Hemsworth as the slighted veteran first mate nor Benjamin Walker as the inexperienced blue-blood captain are passionate enough to pull off their characters). Returning from his previous collaboration with the director in Rush, ace cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle can't make up for the somnolent back-and-forth rhythm with his liquid, turquoise and golden-hued set-ups; there is simply no rousing sense of adventure, just a series of episodic paint-by-numbers sequences suggesting that Mr. Howard, a decent if unimaginative director at his best, is way out of his depth in a film that doesn't play to his strengths.
IN THE HEART OF THE SEA
USA, Australia, Spain, 2015, 122 minutes
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland, Jordi Mollá, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson
Directed by Ron Howard; screenplay by Charles Leavitt; based on a story by Mr. Leavitt, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, and on the book In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick; cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle; music by Roque Baños; production designer Mark Tildesley; costume designer Julian Day; film editors Mike Hill and Dan Hanley; visual effects supervisor Jody Johnson; produced by Paula Weinstein, Joe Roth, Will Ward, Brian Grazer and Mr. Howard, for Warner Bros. Pictures, Cott Productions, Enelmar Productions, Roth Films, Spring Creek Productions and Imagine Entertainment, in association with Village Roadshow Pictures, Ratpac-Dune Entertainment and Kia Jam Media
Screened December 1st 2015, NOS Colombo IMAX, Lisbon