Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

masterandcommanderDespite its cumbersome title, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World may be the most richly entertaining large-scale Hollywood movie of 2003. Its story is simple yet compelling, its characters deftly and economically drawn, its action sequences tough and to-the-point yet never overextended or needlessly gory. In short, it’s what used to be called a cracking good yarn, which is good news for the many readers of Patrick O’Brian’s popular 20-volume series of sea adventures (of which this movie adapts the first and tenth).

It’s 1805, and Napoleon’s sea power is extending across the Pacific. Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), who commands the HMS Surprise, is assigned to stop a particularly durable French vessel, the Acheron, from getting too close to Britain for comfort. We see right from the start how monumental the task is: the Acheron, emerging from dense fog, very nearly blows the Surprise out of the water. From then on, Aubrey is driven to find and dispatch the Acheron, not least because of its insult to his beloved ship. “She’s not an old ship,” he says, patting a splintered wall. “She’s in her prime.” Later, rallying his men, he will announce, “This ship is England.”

The secret of Russell Crowe’s success as a movie star, I think, is not so much his looks — few above-the-title stars are as willing to let themselves go flabby and/or vulnerable — as his single-mindedness and his unblinking confidence that his single goal is worth the battle. Lest the poster lead you to expect another dour, humorless Crowe performance on the order of his grim Oscar-night appearances, I should report that Crowe is allowed a bit more lightness as the full-blooded Aubrey, who’s not above laughter or even telling really awful jokes (he sells the one about the weevils, though; I laughed). Perhaps he won his Oscar for Gladiator solely because he got through the material without looking ridiculous, but he’s always been a prickly and intriguing presence, and he’s softened here by the companionship of Aubrey’s longtime friend, the naturalist and surgeon Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany, who appeared with Crowe in A Beautiful Mind).

Director Peter Weir, after some years of erratic choices, has risen to the occasion and turned Master and Commander into a sharp example of classical filmmaking — the sort of meat-and-potatoes directing that shows effortless mastery with no intrusive pizzazz (the last example of it was The Pianist, which won Roman Polanski an Oscar). Weir doesn’t get lost inside this big Hollywood machine (which was handled by no fewer than three studios — Fox, Miramax, and Universal); he submits to the well-read franchise eagerly, with respect but not crippling awe, much like Peter Jackson with his Lord of the Rings movies. There’s an exhilaration in the big numbers, like a deadly storm at sea or the final battle between the Surprise (which makes good on its name) and the Acheron. Weir puts to shame the grinding, tense-faced exertions of the Wachowski brothers in The Matrix Revolutions; here, the battles count for something.

Master and Commander may feel to some viewers as if a talented director and cast made an excellent Star Trek movie and took it back to its roots (Star Trek II, for instance, could very easily be rewritten as a 19th-century nautical adventure). Weir doesn’t oversell the grit and grime of life on the ocean — we get that it’s hard, dangerous labor. What he and Crowe do is to show us why a crew of reasonably intelligent men, despite some pragmatic doubts now and then, would follow Aubrey on what certainly looks like a suicide mission. Without getting overly jingoistic about king and country (or dying for both), the movie restores some honor to the concept of giving one’s life to the sea, the ship, the captain, and God, not necessarily in that order. It’s an undeniably square, throwback movie, but there’s no major crime in making ’em like they used to, and doing it this elegantly.

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