Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) *** 1/2
Directed by Peter Weir. Written by Mr. Weir and John Collee, from the novels by Patrick O'Brian. Produced by Samuel Goldwyn Jr., Mr. Weir and Duncan Henderson. Cast: Russell Crowe , Paul Bettany, James D'Arcy, Edward Woodall, Chris Larkin, Lee Ingleby, George Innes, Robert Pugh, Max Benitz and Max Pirkis. A Fox, Universal and Miramax release. 140 minutes. PG-13 (violence)
The unwieldy title of this tour-de-force sea-epic - costing a well-spent $150,000,000)-is long because the script --based on the "Aubrey-Maturin" series of 20 novels by Patrick O'Brian-- deals with the first ("Master and Commander") and mostly the tenth ("The Far Side of the World.") All the books center on the career and adventures of Captain "Lucky Jack" Aubrey and his best friend Dr. Stephen Maturin. Their relationship is fascinating in its similarities and differences.
In 1805, during the Napoleonic Wars, and just months before the French Navy's disastrous defeat in Trafalgar by Admiral Horatio Nelson, Captain Aubry has orders to find, sink or capture the French warship "Acheron." (That name, in Greek mythology, was "a river of woe" that ran in Hades, the Underworld.) Note that the novel was set during the U.S,A- England war of 1812. The enemy ship was American rather than French.
Aubry's HMS frigate "Surprise," is fast but small in size. When the British locate their prey off the coast of Brazil, the French vessel -- larger and better armed-- damages severely the" Surprise." We see gory sights and surgeries, notably that of 12-year old, angelic-looking midshipman Blakeney who never complains, often smiles, and is a supreme example of British stiff upper lip.
Dr. Maturin is also a scientist with a passion for naturalism. Captain Aubrey is a top professional whose motto is "Strength --respect--discipline." He is strict but fair, humane, and unlike the harsh captains of stories and films such as "Mutiny on the Bounty." Aubrey is also a "bon vivant" who appreciates good wines and good music. good music. He and his friend Maturin sometimes play violin and cello duets by Bach, Mozart, etc., as well as traditional songs. The play so well that our suspension of disbelief is required -- you know that professionals are manning the strings--- but it is enjoyable and does not jar.
Russell Crow's Aubrey is so likeable, that it comes as a surprise given the star's reputation for unpleasantness. He venerates Admiral Nelson, praises him so much that Maturin exclaims: "Nelson seems to be the exception to the rule that authority corrupts." There's an amusing anachronism here since it was the yet unborn Lord Acton (1834-1902) who famously said : "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
>From the film's start, what strikes us above all are the admirable, impressive, painstaking (and successful) efforts to capture period authenticity down to minute details, starting with the seamen packed (yes, like sardines) in their sleeping quarters.
Before, during and after the battle we are given overviews, a plethora of details and specifics about life on the "Surprise," its crew and officers, with special attention on the Captain and the Surgeon.
Aubrey has a Moby Dick-like fixation for locating "Acheron" again. After the repairs of "Surprise" he sets sail for the Pacific. The notoriously hard passage of Cape Horn is as good as any of its kind, perhaps even the best.
The movie is entirely set at sea, save for a sojourn in the Galapagos, the very islands that naturalist Charles Darwin visited during his 1831-36 voyages on the HMS Beagle. In "Master" Dr. Maturin is like a pre-echo to Darwin as he collects and studies flora and fauna.
The film has also the distinction of being womanless. There's a brief moment when the Captain looks longingly at one of the Brazilians who row up to the ship. A good touch. She is so beautiful that a totally impassive Aubrey would have been inhuman.
Eventually the dogged Aubrey catches up with its prey "Acheron" and major carnage ensues. It fully justifies the R-13 rating.
I am withholding most other details or events of this eminently watchable story. What sets it apart from other nautical adventures, is the authenticity of its substance and look. It required a huge amount of historical research, shipbuilding and SFX (special effects) undetectable and most unlike those of sci-fi or action movies in which SFX are often their main "raison d'etre." Loving attention to details makes this beautiful, exciting, and often violent work drip with authenticity. The effects are invisible since they deal with reconstructions and verisimilitudes. The colossal list of technical end credits is mind-boggling.
"Master etc." does not remind one of the colorful swashbucklers with, say, Errol Flynn. If anything, for me, elements of it oddly bring to mind that great, realistic German WWII submarine film (and TV series) "Das Boot."
On the simplest level of audience expectations "Master and Commander" builds up in such a way that the viewers await the triumph of "Surprise" over "Acheron." But there are no villains on either side.
The movie is no perfect in every respect. I overheard a viewer say "I admired a lot and yawned a little" but I believe that this reaction comes from a few confusions in the story. With ten more minutes of playtime they might have been avoided.
The location of the Galapagos stumps most people. The islands are in the Equator, in Ecuadorian waters.
This is the 12th film (for the big screen) by Australian Director/co-writer Peter Weir (b. 1944.) He is no movie factory. His features are superior works in variety of genres: The Cars that Ate Paris, Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave, Gallipoli, The Year of Living Dangerously, Witness, The Mosquito Coast, Dead Poets Society, Green Card, Fearless, The Truman Show.