The Finest Hours, film review: There's a typhoon of schmaltz brewing

(12A) Craig Gillespie, 118 mins. Starring: Chris Pine, Holliday Grainger, Eric Bana, Ben Foster, Casey Affleck, Graham McTavish

The Finest Hours is a throwback: a movie that is not only set in the early 1950s but that has a very old-fashioned sensibility. It's as if the filmmakers themselves have returned in time to a more innocent age. The spirit here is similar to that found in Ernie Pyle's folksy wartime journalism, celebrating the self-deprecating heroism of ordinary Americans caught in extreme circumstances.

The heroes here aren't soldiers but small town coastguards on Cape Cod who embark on a seemingly suicidal mission to rescue the crew of a stricken tanker during a ferocious storm.

At times, the film makes you feel like a sock in a washing machine during a heavy rinse cycle. When the wind is howling and the crew's tiny lifeboat is being spun around on the waves, you are every bit as buffeted as the sailors themselves. As an audience member, it is not just the elements you have to deal with but a typhoon of schmaltz as well. Carter Burwell's melodramatic music and some very manipulative plotting set out to engulf us in emotion. As the title itself (which is a slight spoiler) suggests, most of the characters here are doing their very best. This is a Disney-made feature with improbably wholesome values and in which there is never any cursing on deck. What keeps the film afloat and finally makes it so moving is its painstaking craftsmanship.

The film's main character, Bernie Webber (Chris Pine), is a shy young coastguard. First seen going for a double date, he looks like a character from an old Levi's ad or from an episode of The Waltons – the quintessential all-American boy. He may be handsome but he is diffident. "Shoulda' worn the other shirt," he nervously tells himself as he walks into the bar where he first sets sight on the beautiful and opinionated Miriam Pentinen (Holliday Grainger).

Australian director Craig Gillespie, whose most notable credit before this was surrealistic romantic comedy Lars and the Real Girl, can't resist egging up the first encounter between Bernie and Miriam. Their eyes meet across the bar when she turns to face him after making a telephone call. The cameras itself seems as agitated as the young couple. There is a lot of furious focus pulling and zooming in and out.

As Bernie and Miriam begin their courtship, she's the one calling the shots. They dance awkwardly and she talks of marriage. It helps that Grainger, who gives a wonderful performance, looks as if she has just stepped out of some 1940s Hollywood melodrama starring Greer Garson. As she and Chris Pine make moony eyes at each other, someone mentions that, oh, by the way, there might be a storm on the way.

Gillespie cross-cuts between events on land and what is happening below decks on the SS Pendleton, a gigantic oil tanker. Early on, as we see the grimy, sweat-covered sailors in the bowels of the ship, operating the heavy machinery, you could be forgiven for thinking you're watching a Soviet-style propaganda film, celebrating the heroic worker. This impression is reinforced by the presence of Scottish actor Graham McTavish as bearded old sea dog, Frank, who looks as if he has stepped out of Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin.

The slow build up is deliberate. On board the ship, as characters slap each other on the back, sing songs or rest on their bunk beds below their pin-ups of Hollywood stars, nothing seems remotely amiss. Then the winds pick up and the storm begins in earnest.

The cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe throws in some remarkable sequences in which the camera prowls through the ship, along its claustrophobic corridors and vast, maze-like interior.

There are two love affairs in The Finest Hours. One is between Bernie and Miriam. The other is between Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck), the ship engineer, and the SS Pendleton. He knows the boat better than anybody and is described as being "practically married" to it. Ray is regarded with grave suspicion by the rest of the crew because he is a loner. Nonetheless, when the Pendleton springs a leak, he is the one the other sailors must rely on to stop the vessel sinking. But it is not only the ship that is taking on water. The screenplay has its soggy edges too. One of the problems is the lack of a clear-cut villain.

The Finest Hours is very dependent on special effects. Much of it was clearly shot in water tanks and there is copious use of CGI. Even so, as Bernie and his skeleton crew leave the harbour and attempt to cross the treacherous "bar" that will allow them to reach the open sea, we really do have the sensation of huge waves beating down on us. Given the sound of the storm (and the unrelenting din of Carter Burwell's soundtrack), there isn't much scope for dialogue. Characters communicate by shouting. Looks and gestures take on an added importance. Ben Foster, recently seen as Lance Armstrong in Stephen Frears's biopic of the disgraced cyclist, registers very strongly as Seaman Livesey, who stands by Bernie's side on the lifeboat's tiny deck as they venture through the massive waves.

We can guess what is going to happen at every step. Bernie is defying orders and proving that he is a "good man" (the ultimate compliment in the close-knit seafaring community). Miriam is on shore, pining for her husband-to-be but still finding a way to be useful to him during a blackout. Ray is tinkering in the innards of the ship, using his specialist knowledge to keep it afloat even as the water level rises. At one key moment, a character loses his compass. The film itself, though, always knows exactly where it is going.

American audiences have cold shouldered The Finest Hours and it came close to sinking at the US box office. It deserves a better reception here. This is rousing, well-crafted fare. Its naïve idealism is quaint, its plotting entirely predictable; but it still has a surprising emotional kick.