Master And Commander: The Far Side of the World Review

Master And Commander: The Far Side of the World is an old-fashioned movie in the very best sense of the term. It’s made with the kind of seamless professional craftsmanship that was once taken for granted in Hollywood but is now considerably less common. Even more impressively, it’s a film made for adults which respects the intelligence of the audience and doesn’t pander to their basest instincts. Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine this being made by Raoul Walsh or John Huston at Warner Brothers in the 1940s and my praise doesn’t come much higher than that.

The film is based on one of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin sea novels, a series which began in relative obscurity and gradually became one of the biggest literary cults of the past twenty years. O’Brian’s knowledge of the world of the British Navy during the period between the Revolutionary Wars and the downfall of Napoleon is just about exhaustive. However, he’s a good enough writer to immerse you in the world without knocking excessive period detail into your head and his novels are full of compelling ethical and political debates, most of them between Captain Jack Aubrey (Crowe), master of the HMS Surprise and Stephen Maturin (Bettany), ship’s doctor and amateur biologist. The first novel in the sequence is called “Master and Commander” but the film is based on the tenth called “The Far Side of the World”, hence the somewhat cumbersome title.

Although the plot of novel and film are broadly the same, some significant changes have been made. No scenes in port are included and the only women to feature are some attractive, mute Brazilian maidens. All references to Aubrey’s less successful life on land have been omitted. The one change which has enraged some O’Brian purists – and engendered some conspiracy theories – is the shifting of period. In the book, the British Navy is fighting the Americans during the Naval conflict of 1812-14 and Surprise is chasing an American vessel around Cape Horn into the Pacific. The film shifts the period back to 1805, not long before Trafalgar, and changes the enemy to the French. Given that a considerable number of O’Brian’s books take place during the relatively minor war with America, this seems unfortunate and suggests that Fox and Universal were none too keen about reviving memories of a time when the Special Relationship was none too special. But that’s not a major problem, unless you’re particularly interested in the global shift of alliances which took place a century later, and the film is certainly more than faithful to the spirit, if not the letter, of the book.

Beginning with a magnificently vivid sea battle, between Surprise and a mysterious, remarkably fast and heavily armoured French vessel, the Acheron, Peter Weir’s film charts an absorbing cat and mouse game between the two vessels, placing Aubrey at the forefront of a potentially lethal situation. Following an attack on the ship, Aubrey faces calls from his crew to turn and go back to port but he decides to fulfil his orders; follow Acheron and prevent her being a serious threat to British interests in the Pacific. Although this means venturing into severe danger, it also allows for a stop-off on the Galapagos Islands where Maturin anticipates Darwin by discovering some remarkable facts about natural selection.

This is such a hugely enjoyable film that it’s hard to know how to evoke its pleasures without over-hyping it or revealing too much about its surprises. What is worth pointing out however is that Russell Crowe’s central performance is so good that it renders his idiotic antics off-camera completely irrelevant. This is old-fashioned star power at its very best, dominating every scene and bringing drive and energy to the somewhat slight narrative, particularly during the middle section. His Aubrey is reasonably true to the character in the books, although the deletion of any material relating to his somewhat disastrous marriage and his bad luck with money does rather limit the characterisation. However, Crowe is charismatic enough to convince you that his men really would go to the ends of the earth to serve him – which, again, is not all that true to the book (where they are held together by comradeship as much as leadership) but does work very well within this simplified film version. I think that this simplification was necessary. A two hour film has to find focus if it isn’t to seem simply a summary of the original book and enough rough-edges to Aubrey’s leadership are suggested to make his brilliance seem at least slightly tempered. Crowe plays this very well, incidentally, and his speeches to the men are satisfying guilty pleasures – clichéd but, despite some shamefaced grinning to yourself, inspiring.

What isn’t simplified – and is in fact executed with considerable subtlety – is the power relationship between Aubrey and Maturin. Paul Bettany is a fine actor who can suggest reserves of power and intelligence without parading them and this serves the character of Maturin very well. Matura’s greater understanding of the psychology of the men – and his sympathy with their class struggle – is alluded to, without being emphasised, in the beautifully understated scenes when he operates upon them and represents their cause to the Captain. Presumably, any other films based on the books will take advantage of the increasing role of Maturin as secret agent for Britain – and his own psychological conflict as Ulsterman sympathiser turned de facto patriot. The debating scenes between the two men, wordy and intense, go some way to acknowledging that this is a relationship of intellectual equals even if they have widely differing areas of expertise.

As I’ve indicated in this discussion, the book and film are different in some respects but this is both inevitable and surprisingly unimportant. It seems to me that the film captures the world of O’Brian’s books with incredible accuracy and this is down to some stunning technical craftsmanship. Peter Weir has always been good on historical recreation, convincing you without forcing detail down your throat, and Master And Commander is a worthy companion to Picnic At Hanging Rock and Gallipoli. The level of recreation is astounding – every nut, bolt and rope seem to be in exactly the right place, at least from my non-expert viewpoint – and the film looks quite stunning. Russell Boyd’s cinematography won a well-deserved Oscar and it’s specificity is beyond reproach, with the interior low-light scenes coming across as well as the gloriously expansive exteriors – and the use of CGI combined with scenes shot in studio is seamlessly convincing. Much the same can be said of the costumes, the largely string-based music score and William Sandwell’s rich, evocative production design. Adding to this almost overpowering realism is excellent casting; none of the anachronistic modernity of out-of-place actors here. Impressive performers like Robert Pugh and David Threefold could have stepped living and breathing out of an early-19th century illustration and even the less promising performers like Billy Boyd and Richard McCabe manage to be believable. Max Parkas deserves mention for being one of the few child performers in recent movies who enhances the movie rather than making you want to strangle him. One should give credit to Crowe’s accent coach – his English persona never once slips. As has been mentioned by Philip French, the tradition of casting an Australian as a leader of the British navy is a long standing one as those who recall Errol Flynn in The Sea Hawk and Mel Gibson in The Bounty will testify.

The pace of the film is deliberate and occasionally a little too stately, but it’s never boring because there’s always historical detail or moral ambiguities to focus on. Anyone expecting a full-tilt Bruckheimer style action movie will probably be disappointed. But Peter Weir has always, in his distinguished and surprisingly consistent career, understood that character and relationships are just as important as visual pyrotechnics and that violent action is only really meaningful if we understand what is at stake. So in the opening conflagration, he establishes the risks and the potential disaster, then spends the majority of the film developing the characters. When we finally reach the hell-for-leather battle at the climax, it’s deeply involving because of the build up. That’s a lesson which should surely have been learned by now – it goes back as far as Ford and probably before – but Weir gives a pretty damn good masterclass in narrative construction for his younger counterparts. This was one of the best movies I saw last year and a second viewing confirms my initial impression that it’s an elegant, beautiful and stimulating piece of filmmaking that deserves to be savoured.

The Disc

Fox are releasing Master And Commander: The Far Side of the World to UK DVD on 5th April in a 2-disc set. As yet, we’ve only received a review copy of the first disc but this is already enough to suggest that it will be an excellent release.

The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. It’s a glorious transfer which is, to my eyes, just about flawless. Coping brilliantly with the various levels of light in the film, the picture contains no problem with artefacting, enough grain to seem filmic without adding unsightly texturing, and plenty of fine detail throughout. Colours are warm and true with natural flesh tones and subtle variation – look at the sky in chapter 27 for an example of the tones of blue. A really superb piece of work and real reference quality stuff.

Two English soundtracks are supplied and both are excellent. The English DTS 5.1 Surround track has the edge in terms of quality and variation with the low-end sounding impressively powerful during the battle scenes and every swish of a wave and creak of the boat adding to your involvement. Dialogue is usually spatially placed between the front right and left channels. The rear channels are utilised throughout, although most noticeably in the loud battle moments. This is a loud film at these times but relatively quiet elsewhere and the DTS track does a fine job of rendering dialogue just as satisfying as the big effects. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is also excellent although not quite as full or satisfying somehow. But whichever you choose, you’re unlikely to be disappointed. Thanks to Mark Rafferty for the use of his DTS equipment to check this track.

The only extras on this first disc – a review of the second will be forthcoming – are some forced trailers for Runaway Jury, Cheaper By The Dozen, Stuck On You and The Day After Tomorrow, and a short featurette plugging the forthcoming I, Robot.

The film is divided into 36 chapters and English subtitles are provided. The animated menus are nice to look at but somewhat irritating when you’re trying to navigate the disc.

The second disc contains the extra features. Much disappointment was expressed when Peter Weir announced that he would not be contributing a commentary track. But we need not have worried since the documentaries on the second disc feature more than enough information for even the most exacting fan of the film.

The first documentary, running just over an hour, is called "The Hundred Days" and deals with the making of the film from Weir's first involvement to the completion of the music score. Fascinating and gripping stuff, packed with interviews and some carefully wrought behind the scenes filming. Weir comes across as eloquent and dedicated and Russell Crowe continues to carry on as though he were a combination of Errol Flynn and Brian Blessed. My favourite bit contains Weir's obsession with the correct placing of several gallons of blood. In some respects, this is better than a commentary because it's carefully structured to cover various points of view and doesn't have any dull spots.

"In The Wake Of O'Brian" concerns the ways in which Weir was determined to make a faithful and coherent film from what he calls "in effect, a 5,000 page book". The problems with the lack of plot and the extended discussions of social and moral issues which are riveting on the page but not necessarily the stuff of great cinema are dealt with in detail. Again, Weir talks eloquently and his passion for the material is patently sincere. This runs for a fully packed 19 minutes.

A section entitled 'Featurettes' contains three short documentaries. The "HBO First Look" will be familiar to anyone who has been watching DVDs over the past five years and is often the death knell for one's interest. But this has some good interviews, well chosen clips and, again, an overwhelming aura of enthusiasm which fills the 25 minutes rather well. Inevitably, it tends to look like a teaser for the longer making-of featurette but it's still worth a look. "Cinematic Phasmids" deals with the visual effects and is dominated by frightfully clever chaps from WETA - well known for their work on that Rings nonsense. I have to admit a total disinterest in the technical side of these things but it's certainly enlightening and effects buffs will love seeing the complexities of the operation. I was, however, fascinated to see the trade-off that occurs between CGI and model work. "Sound Design" is about, er, the sound design and features an exhaustive discussion on the work of the sound designer when he's dealing with a film which relies so much on his efforts. Added to this is a little treat called the "Interactive Sound Recording Demo" which allows you to imagine that you're in the driving seat.

"Multi-camera Shooting" gives you the opportunity of seeing two sections of the film divided into five different cameras - the four main camera angles and the B-Roll. Some of this is contained in the "Hundred Days" documentary but this gives you the chance to look at the different angles for yourself and is, as usual, a lot of fun if not the novelty it was back in 1999. As ever, the angle button allows you to change camera. 'Split Screen Vignette' demonstrates the problems which can arise when shooting with more than one camera.

The Deleted Scenes section contains six scenes which were cut out of the finished film. The best of them are the splendidly flavoursome black comedy of "Dentistry", the reflective and thought-provoking "Galapagos" and "Shipboard Life" which gives you a broader view of the everyday life of the crew.

Finally, there is a Stills Gallery containing conceptual art by George Jensen and Daren Dochterman, Naval Art and some technical drawings.

All of these features are beautifully presented with the splendidly atmospheric introduction screens proving particularly impressive.

A fine film has received an excellent transfer on DVD.

Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World will be released on R2 by Fox on the 5th April

9 out of 10
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