Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World Review
It's 1805, the time of Napoleon, and war between the French and British empires is being waged across the globe, by land and ocean. On a trade route in the South Atlantic, British merchant shipping is being sunk and robbed of their valuable cargos by a French privateer named the Acheron, a privateer being a licenced pirate ship which served one empire by looting the vessels of its rivals. To intercept and destroy the Acheron, the Royal Navy dispatches the HMS Surprise, a 28-gun warship under the command of Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe). His first sighting of the French ship comes sooner than he expects. In heavy fog, off the coast of Brazil, the Surprise is ambushed and takes a heavy pounding from the Acheron's cannons before Aubrey is able to make his escape. Despite serious damage, many casualties and the misgivings of his officers, the captain announces that the Surprise will continue with its mission, thus beginning a lengthy game of cat and mouse with a larger and better armed foe. In between engagements, Aubrey must also deal with the day to day problems of commanding a ship carrying 197 sailors, such as officers who aren't up to the job, a superstitious crew and a ship's surgeon who has little love for warfare and would rather be indulging his second calling as a naturalist.
It's the relationship between Aubrey and his surgeon, Dr Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany) that provides Master And Commander with its heart and with a philosophical depth that's surprising and welcome. These are two intelligent, cultured men who like and respect each other but whose different outlooks on life sometimes put them in conflict. Maturin is a humanist whose main concern is for the wellbeing of the crew, while Aubrey is a career military man who believes in following his orders even when it puts his men at risk and who feels it necessary to carry out his more unpleasant duties, such as supervising the lashing of an insubordinate seaman. By making Maturin a more modern, liberal thinker, which is credible for a doctor, Master And Commander is able to examine the morality of the 19th century navy and of the British Empire without succumbing to revisionism. Surprisingly, in times when the British Empire is rarely depicted on film as anything other than villainous, Aubrey is allowed to state his case persuasively and to be a sympathetic and even heroic figure.
He's played by a perfectly cast Russell Crowe, who already proved in Gladiator that he's ideally suited to playing larger than life heroes in epic films. This is a star performance in the best sense. Crowe carries a confident air of authority from his first second onscreen and is completely convincing as a naval captain. Paul Bettany, bespectacled, introverted and occasionally petulant, makes a great contrast to his macho costar. The two actors appeared together before in A Beautiful Mind and they play off each other superbly.
Not that this is a film about talking heads - far from it! Aubrey and Maturin are practically the only characters who are developed and deliberately so. Peter Weir, who directed and co-adapted the screenplay from two books by Patrick O'Brian, has made an intensely physical movie about life aboard a British warship. Master And Commander puts you aboard the Surprise and goes to great lengths to show what it must have been like for the captain, his officers and the crew. Inevitably the film's been criticised for being cold and slow-moving. There are only two actual battle sequences in two hours and twenty minutes, which will disappoint anyone expecting Pirates Of The Caribbean but contributes to the feeling of reality. The battles, when they do come, are vivid and exciting and the whole movie is spectacular to look at, thanks to the widescreen photography of Russell Boyd and computer generated effects used as seamlessly as they've ever been. However, the film isn't so much about action as Weir's recreation of another time and place. He lingers over the minutest details, spends time with a wide range of crewmembers from high-ranking officers to the lowliest deckhands and takes the trouble to explain Aubrey's combat strategies so that we're always clear about what's going on. Audiences in search of fast-paced, instantly accessible entertainment should look elsewhere. More patient viewers will be rewarded with one of the most unique and fascinating movies of the year.