In the Heart of the Sea (2015)

In the Heart of the SeaHerman Melville (Ben Whishaw) has become preoccupied with the story of the Essex, and, convinced that the only way to rid himself of his latest obsession is to commit it to the page, travels to Nantucket where he has arranged to speak with the only surviving crewmember. Reluctantly, Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) recalls his experiences as a cabin boy (Tom Holland) under novice captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and his rather more experienced first officer, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth). Fast foes, the pair are determined to be rid of one another as quickly as possible, and in their haste steer the Essex into unfamiliar waters after hearing tales of a bounty of sperm whales in the remote Offshore Grounds. In so doing, however, they ignore another rumour, of an enormous white whale intent on destroying any ship that crosses its pod.

Prior to the release of the first trailer, buzz for In the Heart of the Sea was relatively positive. Ron Howard had just made Rush with Chris Hemsworth, a compelling sports drama with a charismatic lead, and had put together an impressive cast for their next film together, the story behind one of the greatest American novels ever written. The trailer changed everything, however, as discussion soon turned to the famous white whale, and how poorly rendered it appeared in the various effects shots that dominated the footage. For while Melville’s novel might have been a treatise on race, religion and revenge, in which the whale is as much metaphor as monster, Howard’s adaptation seemed to be positioning itself as a disaster cum survival movie in the blockbuster, in which the whale attacks were the main draw. The only problem? It didn’t look as though anyone involved had ever seen a whale before. Had Moby Dick already sunk its own adaptation?

It might come as something of a surprise, then, but In the Heart of the Sea isn’t nearly as bad as it looks. It’s no classic — nor is it even another Rush — but there is more going on than anyone had any real reason to expect. For one, the narrative device employing Herman and Nickerson is not only a more substantial part of the movie, it is also one of the most memorable. There is never any threat that the story won’t be told — history tells us otherwise, as does the poster for the film — but it makes for engaging drama nonetheless. With Michelle Fairley providing support as Thomas’ wife, the trio quickly build an uncanny rapport that foregrounds their subplot against the rather more more straightforward main narrative. Hemsworth is compelling as ever, but his characterisation — and his conflict with Pollard — is so by the numbers and predictable as to nullify any perceptible dramatic tension. There is a slightly unreal aesthetic to the film, and whether or not the performances are meant to ape that quality, their rivalry does feel a little cartoonish at times.

In context, meanwhile, the whale doesn’t look any more realistic, nor do the pods of regular-sized sperm whales that feature throughout, but Howard finds other ways of provoking a visceral reaction. The film doesn’t shy away from the butchery and barbarism of the whaling industry, and there are a number of shots demonstrating both the hunting and harvesting of these animals that really gets beneath the skin, no pun intended, and leads to some pretty interesting places. (When it is revealled that oil can now be extracted straight from the planet, you really fear for our poor little world.) Tom Holland is exceptional throughout as the young Nickerson, but never better than when forced into the carcass of a freshly harpooned whale and told to extract the more hard to reach pockets of oil from its depths. It’s an upsetting scene, and Thomas’ own tumult is plain to see. That is to say, then, that the whale’s retribution feels perfectly justified, leaving the real horror to come from the survivors’ own treatment of one another. Life of Pi and Unbroken didn’t shy away from desperation, but even within the boundaries of its 12A rating In the Heart of the Sea really makes you question not just the value of survival, but the very essence of humanity.

Not swashbuckling enough to compete with Star Wars, and not substantial enough to convince as any sort of counterpoint, it’s unclear exactly which audience Howard is fishing for. Like Blackhat, another of Hemsworth’s 2015 efforts that suffered a similar issue, however, it might yet make its bounty back on DVD. By the power of Thor — and Spider-man, too — if nothing else.

3-Stars

Locke (GFF 2014)

LockeIvan Locke (Tom Hardy) has a busy night ahead of him. A Welsh building contractor, Ivan is facing the biggest concrete delivery of his career — the biggest, in fact, to ever take place in Europe — and yet he is driving in the opposite direction, instead heading to a hospital in London to see a woman he barely knows named Bethan (Olivia Colman). Between calls to the office, where Donal (Andrew Scott) is working on Ivan’s behalf to ensure the delivery goes precisely to plan, and Bethan, Ivan also tries to contact his wife, Katrina (Ruth Wilson), who is at home with their two children (Tom Holland, Bill Milner) waiting to watch a football match with her absent husband.

There is a moment approximately twenty minutes in to Locke when it becomes clear that the action is never going to leave the inside of Ivan’s car. To begin with this is reasonable cause for concern; Tom Hardy is certainly convincing as a cement expert, but as characters go it’s safe to say that he’s not the most dynamic. Eventually, however, Ivan’s predicament becomes suddenly vital, and his list of contacts transform from vague voices on the end of the phone line to complex and compelling characters in their own right.

Locke isn’t the first movie to incorporate telecommunication into its narrative — both Phone Booth and Cellular relied on characters communicating almost exclusively by phone — but in not treating this device as a gimmick the film certainly gets some points for originality. Locke isn’t about the car phone, it’s about the relationships in Ivan’s life and what each individual one reveals about his personality. The most telling conversation doesn’t even take place over the phone, but is instead an imagined, one-sided diatribe with his deceased father.

Hardy is astonishing in the role, holding his audience’s attention throughout. Ivan is for the most part calm and collected, but on occasion betrays a vulnerability and uncertainty that stems from his own father issues and his determination to redeem the Locke name. While Ivan may have accepted his predicament, those around him are far from ready to deal with the consequences. The different facets to his character make Ivan interesting, but its his frustration at everyone else that makes him so sympathetic. His bosses anger, his colleague’s confusion and his wife’s hurt all seem obscene in the calm of Ivan’s car, and you become not only invested but defensive as you see him attacked from all angles.

A high-concept thriller with a difference, Steven Knight’s Locke is sober, understated and character-driven. Don’t let the subdued atmosphere put you off, however, as Hardy’s performance ensures that it is just as tense and urgent as any other.

4-Stars

How I Live Now (2013)

How I Live NowDaisy (Saoirse Ronan), real name Elizabeth, is a teenage New Yorker sent to live with her Aunt Penn (Anna Chancellor) in England. She arrives to find a country on the brink of World War III and her aunt called away to a conference in Geneva, and is instead picked up from the airport by Isaac (Tom Holland), her young cousin, and driven north to the family farm. There she meets Piper (Harley Bird) and Eddie (George MacKay), the latter of whom she develops sexual feelings for. Their romance is cut short, however, when a nuclear explosion decimates London and showers the surrounding area in ash, throwing the UK into marshal law and separating the boys from the girls as Daisy and Piper are sent to safety in Scotland.

Based on the prize-winning 2004 novel of the same name by Meg Rosoff, How I Live Now drops the book’s supernatural elements in pursuit of realism and ages its cast up a few years in the name of taste. It’s safe to say that this isn’t the usual young adult fare currently being optioned by Hollywood, with its incest and child brutality. Even next to The Hunger Games, How I Live Now seems particularly bleak, and with the likes of The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones and Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters treading almost excruciatingly safely it’s refreshing to have a film for teenagers that refuses to pull its punches.

Admittedly, the film takes its time before finally showing its full hand, and the opening segment is fairly familiar. Ronan seems a strange choice to play an American, but she is wonderfully sparky as Daisy, a difficult girl but “not the sort of Yank” who’s going to kiss someone’s ass just because they’re British. Her performance prevents the fish out of water cliche from becoming boring. MacKay is strikingly English, particularly after his dual turns as Scots in For Those In Peril and Sunshine on Leith, and continues to impress in a very different role. Holland and Bird are great too, the latter rising to the challenge when she is promoted to co-star for much of the film’s second and third act.

Once Daisy and Piper are on their own, first at a refugee camp and later in the wilds of England, the summer idyll is smashed and nobody is safe. Children die, women are raped and men are forced to do the unthinkable in the name of their country. A particularly unforgettable scene involves the two girls coming across a settlement overrun by foxes, where Daisy must pick her way through a pile of corpses in the hope that Eddie is not among them. Unfortunately, The Last King of Scotland director Kevin Macdonald is clearly more confident with the tougher elements than the romantic throughline (though this admittedly does well to discredit any comparisons to the gung-ho Red Dawn), and as shocking as these atrocities are they are occasionally undermined by glowing, topless apparitions of MacKay smiling out from the darkness.

How I Live Now may be a little too inconsistent to ever be considered a truly great film, but as a young adult movie it is something very special indeed. Ronan puts any recollection of The Host to rest, and together with Macdonald produces an incredibly powerful and visceral movie that will stay with you long after the Percys and Bellas of this world have disappeared from memory.

4-Stars