There were two things I was really looking forward to about In The Heart Of The Sea – it being released on Boxing Day and it being directed by Ron Howard.
Ron Howard gave us Splash. He gave us Frost/Nixon. He gave us The Grinch. He knows how to make a film does Ron. And Boxing Day! If a ship full of men sailing the high seas trying to kill a whale doesn’t just scream Christmas I don’t know what does.
So, it’s the festive season, Ron Howard is at the helm, Chris Hemsworth gets soaking wet – what could go wrong?
Well, I’m glad you asked… Let’s start with the set-up.
Ben Whishaw rocks up at Brendan Gleeson’s place wanting to hear the tale of The Essex, which set sail from Nantucket to bring back barrels of whale oil only to hit a few snags and snaffoos. We are then treated to intermittent bouts of narration and flash forwards to the ongoing interview as the story unfolds. This, somehow, lends an almost documentary air to the whole thing and slows down the pacing of the film. Which given its slow start, is not a good thing.
Then there’s the actual action. Leaving aside the actual whale hunting scenes for a second (shouldn’t have happened then, shouldn’t be happening now, shouldn’t be shown on the screen – but that’s a strictly personal thing), the shift to 3D lends a slightly surreal air to the whole thing. You feel slightly detached from proceedings, not at the heart of the action. And the less said about the scenes that are clearly shot in a giant studio tank the better.
Then there’s the performances. Hemsworth’s accent can’t stay still for more than 30 seconds, while Benjamin Walker’s portrayal of a man of privilege captaining a ship seems to have him all at sea. He can’t decide between arrogant, pompous ass or awkward, semi-British stuck-up prig and ends up somewhere in the middle. One or the other would have been an improvement.
Then there’s the characters. Well, one. A key one as it goes. Early on we meet a young, fresh-faced, American-sounding Tom Nickerson. A Tom Nickerson, it turns out, grows up to be a gruff, bearded Irishman played by Brendan Gleeson. Both performances are fine, but how one grew up into the other is still making my head hurt.
And if all that wasn’t enough to contend with, it’s just dull. And boring. To the point that, an hour in I really thought I’d been there for two and a half. I had another hour to go. It ended up feeling like three. Which means it feels like five and a half hours of dull film. At Christmas. Yay.
But all of that pales into insignificance next to the whale and the whale scenes. The big fella, the main whale, is for the most part done well, even if a couple of close-ups might make you snigger.
But what Howard has done well are the more general whaley bits. At first I found myself getting angry as a bunch of arsehats set about harpooning whales. Then I reminded myself that it was just a film, and it’s what happened back then. That didn’t help and I carried on being angry. Then the penny dropped. Howard had done this bit really well. If you’re watching such scenes and you’ve bought into it enough to have that strong an emotional reaction, then damn it if he hasn’t managed to get something right. Which just makes the rest of the film feel so wrong.
It shouldn’t be this dull, it shouldn’t have so many problems, it shouldn’t make you feel like you’ve been watching it for weeks. Yet, somehow, it is, it has an it does.
I’d actually rather watch Les Mis again.