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Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) Print E-mail
Friday, 14 November 2003
This lavish naval adventure is both superbly produced and unusually austere, telling a very simple story clearly and well. There's not a trace of melodrama, of the kind of plot reversals usually found in adventures, nothing other than the tale of the HMS Surprise and her pursuit of the French privateer Acheron. The voyage takes both ships down the coast of Brazil, around Cape Horn, and north in the Pacific to the Galapagos Islands. It's intensely realistic, with period details rendered as accurately as possible, and features another rich performance from Russell Crowe, here playing Jack Aubrey, captain of the Surprise.

Because the story is limited just to the encounters between the two warships -- the movie opens and closes with their two major sea battles -- some audiences will be perplexed. Except for a brief meeting between the British ship and some natives from Brazil, who don't even come aboard, there are no women in the film. We get a glimpse of a heartfelt letter Aubrey -- known to his men as Lucky Jack -- is writing to his wife back in London. The crew goes ashore at the Galapagos (with the scenes really shot there), and at the end, there are scenes aboard the Acheron. Otherwise, the movie sticks strictly to the men aboard the Surprise.

But that's plenty for the engrossing adventure that unfolds; this is an epic of the sort David Lean used to make, both in its beauty and its focus on the people in the story. The movie is based on two of the very popular "Master and Commander" novels by the late Patrick O'Brien. The detailed, accurate books have generated their own world-wide fandom, which has been tensely waiting for a movie based on them for many years. After many attempts, director Peter Weir took a crack at the script with John Collee, basing it mostly on one of the O'Brien books, with elements from another. Weir directed it as well, his biggest-scale movie since "Gallipoli" more than twenty years ago.

Weir doesn't make movies very often; his most recent was "The Truman Show." But it's worth the wait; he's one of the best directors now working, though his lack of a personal style keeps some from elevating him to the "pantheon" of great directors. He places his style, his goals, in the script; his movies are beautifully realized, seeming at times almost dream-like, but they don't resemble each other very much. You point out the stylistic similarities between, say, "The Mosquito Coast" and "Green Card."

The tale starts in April, 1805, during a conflict between England and France, then ruled by Napoleon. Aubrey has been ordered to deal severely with the Acheron which, as a privateer, has been striking at British shipping. But Aubrey and his crew are surprised when they are attacked by the Acheron, a much larger and better-armed ship. The battle takes place in thick fog, and the Surprise barely gets away. They set out in pursuit of the other ship, rounding Cape Horn in an icy storm, then sailing up the Pacific coast of South America, heading for the Galapagos.
The movie is achingly authentic; below decks, the many hammocks sway as the ship creaks, crackles and groans. The food looks vile, the work very hard, and the grime always obvious. The presence of food-infesting insects on the Captain's table is completely taken for granted. We see Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), the ship's surgeon and Capt. Aubrey's good friend, perform bloody, dirty surgery when necessary. The steps required to remove an injured arm are shown in detail up to the actual cutting.

Weir is not out to make a scenic film; his focus is on the ship and the men aboard her. There are no long aerial views of the ships pounding through picturesque waves, though the coast of Brazil and the Galapagos Islands are, however briefly, handsomely depicted. The movie is laden with special effects, primarily CGI, though some miniatures were used, too -- but the effects are utterly invisible. I've never seen another movie that looked more like someone took a camera back in a time machine.

This tight focus on the characters and their interplay is the greatest strength of "Master and Commander." Weir's direction and the precise script present details quickly and succinctly; before fifteen minutes have passed, we know that Lucky Jack is deeply devoted to his ship and crew, and the crew would follow him into Hell. We're shown why they're so loyal, without undue emphasis on sympathy-producing gestures. This is life as it was lived in the British Navy in the early 19th century, when Lord Nelson was the hero of Great Britain. (He's evoked in the film, too, amusingly at first, and then sincerely and with great feeling. In American history, there is no equivalent of Lord Nelson.)

We get to know a lot of the crew, though it's not always easy to figure out their names. Aubrey's lieutenants are a good lot of men, and the midshipmen mostly boys, but one of them, Blakeney (Chris Larkin), shows his intelligence and his courage in battle, despite losing an arm in the first third of the film. Few of the actors are recognizable from other movies, which helps this film with its goal of utter realism.

The overweight Aubrey is a bit more proud of his ship -- he's served on her since he was a midshipman himself -- than he is of the men, but he knows each of the crew by name, and is free with both praise and punishment, when it's warranted. Some problems are beyond his reach; a hapless midshipman (Lee Ingleby) is a "Jonah," who brings bad luck to the ship. Dr. Maturin is surprised to learn that even Aubrey tends to believe this is true, but does deal out appropriate punishment. Nonetheless, this superstitious behavior ends in tragedy.

Russell Crowe is an astonishing actor; when he's given a challenging role, he not only disappears into it, as he does here, but he makes it all look easy and natural. There's nothing forced or mannered about his performance; he simply is Lucky Jack, with his long, blond hair and too-prominent belly, and that's all there is to it. It's the sort of great performance that can go without due recognition, simply because it looks effortless and real.

There are layers to Aubrey. In the evenings, he and his friend Dr. Maturin meet in the Captain's quarters; Maturin plays the cello and Aubrey the violin. Their music slightly irks the crew -- they want something they can dance to. It's a great touch of both characterization and the period. Aubrey is also fond of puns, even if one of his officers mutters, "a man who would pun would pick pockets." But he's a tough, dedicated captain, and a great one. He tries a couple of imaginative but believable tricks to reach the Acheron. One of his officers exclaims, "That's seamanship, by God that's seamanship." In other films, great seamanship is depicted in the simplest possible terms, when there's really more to it. Here, it's shown for the complex set of skills and disciplines it really is, and yet we understand it completely.

There is very little person-to-person conflict in the film; there's the business with the hapless "Jonah," and an argument between Aubrey and Maturin when the trip to the Galapagos is initially canceled. Maturin has heard of the unusual animals there, and as he's a naturalist rather than a surgeon, he's very eager to see for himself. But Naval requirements lead Jack to turn aside, at least for the time. When they do get to the wonderful islands, there's a magnificent pan across their bleak but handsome landscape, and a little natural history expedition led by Maturin and one-armed Blakeney.

Crowe's warm, strong performance is central but not dominant; the movie is well-acted throughout, always in a natural tone. We meet men of every rank on the ship, and all seem completely real.

The cinematography by Russell Boyd is handsome rather than beautiful, befitting the aim of the story -- realism in all details. The score is by several composers, but it's almost entirely played on strings. It is spare and sparse, and there's none of the big-sea flavor that music for most seafaring movies has. As with the film itself, it's understated and subtle.

The movie is almost hypnotic in its ability to draw audiences in, and almost like a science fiction movie in its depiction of a society now removed from us by two hundred years. Yet we recognize these as real men, involved in a dangerous if exciting venture. (Having sent one midshipman out on a perilous mission, Aubrey smiles when he returns. "Now don't tell me that wasn't fun," he says.)

The dialog is realistic, with slang of the early 19th century used throughout, sometimes unintelligibly to modern audiences, but we never lose our way. The interactions of the characters, the steely determination of Capt. Aubrey, the dangers faced by all -- these are knitted together with great production values by director Weir, resulting in one of the best movies of the year.

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