In the Heart of the Sea (12A)

Three stars

Dir: Ron Howard

With: Chris Hemsworth, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw

Runtime: 122 minutes

AT the heart of Ron Howard’s old fashioned, topsy turvy, but still lively tale, is a whale. Here be monsters, though not of the Godzilla or Blob variety, but some of nature’s sublime giants, and one, in particular, by the name of Moby Dick.

Call me delighted to see a rendering of a whale that would surely delight David Attenborough, but call me puzzled that it was not given even more screen time when it, not the humans who are hunting it, is the real hero of the piece.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves, as our species is wont to do. Howard, the helmer of Apollo 13, Backdraft, and A Beautiful Mind (not to mention, for my money, one of most overlooked newspaper pictures in the genre, The Paper) begins his old fashioned tale in an old fashioned way, with a stranger arriving at dead of night at a door in Nantucket, Massachusetts. The year is 1850, the developing world is gasping for more whale oil to light its way, and the man about to knock on wood is one Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw).

Melville wants to know the real story behind the sinking of the whaling ship, Essex. History has it that the vessel ran aground by accident, but Melville has heard stories of a terrible clash between men and nature, the outcome of which has been deemed too horrific too relate. Will a survivor, Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) tell Melville the truth so that he might base a novel on it? After much persuasion, and for a price, he will.

Howard then cuts back to the Essex setting sail. Newly refitted, it has to earn its money back, which is fine by first mate and salt of the Earth type Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), who has a baby on the way and needs all the wages he can get. But standing in the way of the efficient running of the vessel is a posh boy captain, only in the job because he comes from the right, monied, family.

Howard, working from a screenplay by Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond), which in turn is based upon Nathaniel Philbrick’s book, thus has a meeting of opposites to put at the centre of his story. Howard has been here before, notably in Rush (James Hunt, played by Hemsworth, takes on Niki Lauda), and Frost/Nixon. He is clearly at home with the set up, rather too much so. The real interest in this picture lies not in the bickering between first mate and captain, but in what is out there in the wild blue yonder.

When the whales finally make their appearance they are an awesome sight. The cameras run along their length, giving a breathtaking sense of their size. We see them moving balletically underwater and then triumphantly breaking the surface, beautiful, elegant and simply divine.

Here, though, Howard has a problem. He has a gathering of humans that the audience is meant to identify with and root for to some extent, the same as in many a movie. But these humans are about to do despicable things with harpoons. Why should we care about them after that? This viewer certainly struggled to do so.

It is a considerable hurdle, and one which is not crossed by having some of the characters look vaguely mournful when they see the outcome of the slaughter. When the magnificent white beast eventually appears to wreak his revenge it is all one can do not to stand up and cheer.

But Howard cannot spend too much time with Moby Dick, alas, as there is another part to the tale. Having handled the action scenes superbly, he shows himself equally adept in the quieter stretches as the crew work out what to do next.

With such a thrilling middle and a thought-provoking final section, it is just a pity he spent so much time in the doldrums at the start, giving his picture an unbalanced air. If you can make it through those initially unpromising waters, Howard ends up delivering a fairly fantastic voyage.