Movies: Ron Howard’s whale tale is a mere minnow

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, December 10, 2015 8:06am
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Chris Hemsworth’s performance as Thor looks like a triumph of realism next to his turn as a Nantucket whaler in “In the Heart of the Sea.” I know it must be difficult for an Australian actor to master a New England accent, but Hemsworth sounds like he’s choking on Boston baked beans for the duration of the film.

Of course, who knows what a Nantucket whaler sounded like in 1820? But the accent is the least of Hemsworth’s problems in “Heart,” an adaptation of Nathaniel Philbrick’s non-fiction bestseller about an incredible sea disaster.

In 1821, in the South Pacific, the whaleship Essex was rammed and sunk by a huge whale. The surviving sailors endured ghastly hardships in the following weeks, including starvation.

Two of the survivors later wrote accounts of the nightmare: first mate Owen Chase (Hemsworth) — who frequently clashed with captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) — and cabin boy Thomas Nickerson (Tom Holland).

The film is framed around the idea that Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) visits the older Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) and cajoles him to tell the Essex story. Melville will then use the bones of the tale to create a little novel by the name of “Moby-Dick,” the epic of a white whale with a bad attitude.

Director Ron Howard goes for the spectacle in the film, and there are some amazing incidents along the way. But even at 121 minutes, the film lacks a certain sweep. (I get the feeling there’s a longer cut somewhere — the movie feels rushed.)

Hemsworth struggles to make an impression; despite his manly appearance, this actor is at his best with comedy. And there ain’t much of that here. As his wife, Charlotte Riley is stuck with the “I’ll be waitin’ for ye” role back home, while Cillian Murphy suffers nobly as Chase’s seafaring pal.

The digitally created world is an issue, too. I’m not being contrarian when I say the whale-hunting scenes in John Huston’s 1956 film of “Moby Dick” are more astonishing than the similar scenes here, despite the digital toolbox available to Ron Howard.

There are storms at sea and rapid-fire action, which makes the 3D (available in some theaters) an eye-straining distraction. Perhaps most disappointing is that Howard doesn’t display much wonder at the sea, or the lumpy-looking whales that stand in for Melville’s mythic Moby Dick.

In one eerie moment, Chase and Nickerson are spattered with bloody whale breath, and pause for a shocked moment, as thought wondering what they’re doing harpooning this giant creature. That’s as close as this film comes to catching an authentic sense of mystery.

“In the Heart of the Sea” (2 stars)

Ron Howard directs this adaptation of Nathaniel Philbrick’s non-fiction bestseller about the doomed 1820 voyage of the whaleship Essex. Curiously, the film lacks an epic quality despite the fascinating true yarn, and Chris Hemsworth struggles to make an impression as the manly first mate. A heavy reliance on digital effects also helps sink this survival tale.

Rating: PG-13, for violence

Showing: Alderwood Mall, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Stanwood Cinemas, Meridian, Woodinville, Cascade Mall, Oak Harbor Plaza

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