Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is not Gladiator on the water, so don't listen to the scuttlebutt. This movie based on a series of novels by Patrick O'Brian chronicling the seagoing adventures of Captain "Lucky" Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), his ship, and crew. I am not much of a Russell Crowe devotee, in fact I probably know more about him from his exploits in the newspaper, than I do of his onscreen work. His private life aside, though, he brings the same machismo, ruggedness, and valor from Gladiator, and does a bang up job in Master and Commander and proves that he is more than capable of handling a deep dramatic role in this silver screen gem.
The story is set in 1805 during the Napoleonic Wars as France and England fight for control of the seas. England fearing Bonaparte's rise, sends one of their finest, Captain Jack Aubrey to keep the keep the French naval forces in check. On board with him is his trusted friend and ship's surgeon and naturalist, Steven Maturin (Paul Bettany: A Knight's Tale, A Beautiful Mind). The two are very different individuals and Maturin is the Spock to Aubrey's Kirk.
Aubrey commands the HMS Surprise, which has been ordered to the coast of Brazil to intercept the French vessel, the Acheron, and take her as a prize or destroy her. The intent is also to prevent the war from spilling into the Pacific. The biggest challenge, however, is that the French ship is lighter, quicker, and more heavily armed than the Surprise. The Surprise gets a surprise herself when she is cleverly attacked by the Acheron in a shrewdly crafted opening scene, and thus the dogs of war and cat-and-mouse game slip into action.
Some of the films most intense scenes include the harrowing tempest off Cape Horn and it calls to mind scenes from The Perfect Storm and Maturin performing surgery on himself to remove a bullet lodged in his gut, -- this makes the earlier scene of him amputating the arm of Lord Blakeney (Max Pirkis), a lion-hearted youth who later becomes his apprentice, seem like a cakewalk. Perhaps the only other surgical scene that can compare is where he performs open-air brain surgery using a flattened coin as a plate.
You think that the real plot is simply between the two ships, but there is an equal battle between Aubrey and Maturin that parallels it. The pair struggle to balance their missions, their duties, their friendships and own self interests; and neither is willing to concede to the other. Both are exceptionally sharp and sophisticated individuals and are committed to God, King, and Country. However, both have radically different ideas on how to serve each. Aubrey is more of a Hannibal at sea; displaying expert seamanship, tactical ability, and the charismatic leadership that rallies the troops into battle, as where Maturin is more of a gentle and realistic thinker.
Crowe does a fine job as the formidable, although flawed Capt Aubrey. It is evident that his personal desires fuel and sometime eclipses his sense of duty and occasionally his reason. Giving no less of an equally fine performance against Crowe is Paul Bettany. Not as flamboyant and more noticeably soft-spoken than his scene-stealing performance as Chaucer in A Knight's Tale, he delivers a soulful performance of the loyal friend who feels that the skipper occasionally forgets himself and in doing so directs his crew instead of leading them. The underlying subplot of him wanting to tour the Galapagos to sample and study the unusual flora and fauna is a repeated bone of contention between the pair, and reveals that Maturin also allows his personal interests compromise his objectivity.
However, no maritime movie would be complete without a healthy dose of seafaring superstition, and M&C provides it. Included is a side story of a ship's officer (Lee Ingleby) who is suspected of being Jonah, bringing ill tidings to the crew and bad luck befalling the ship when a Royal Marine tries to kill an albatross.
"Master and Commander" contains a fair amount of action, but it is not a pure action movie. It is mainly character driven, but where action is present, it is done well. The opening scene, and the film's climax I would have to say are the best parts of the film. The excitement of the final battle scene between the Surprise and the Acheron was exciting and can be attributed the suspense that director Peter Weir so expertly built up. There are some special effects in the movie, but they merge seamlessly and are hard to distinguish from the real-life action shots.
A few things that are shortcomings for Master and Commander are its running length and its design. -- At 139 minutes, it can drag on as there's not a constant stream of action to make the time fly by. As I mentioned earlier, the movie is heavily character driven, and heavy on characters, and at times you'll need a program to remember who's who. The film does noticeably lacks any romantic/sexual subplots. Women are only seen and discussed passingly in the film. Once when Aubrey briefly flirts with a young parasol-holding girl off the bow of his ship, and again when he's writing a letter to the woman who waits for him back in England.
The movie accurately depicts life at sea in the days of wooden ships and iron men and gets kudos for historical accuracy. The film tempered triumphs with tragedy, especially when a couple well-liked characters perish in the line of duty and the Captain has to make a very unpopular decision in the disciplining of one of his men.
Master and Commander is admirably photographed and edited, from the breathtaking seascapes to the ultimate confrontation between the two sides. It does an astonishing job of bringing O'Brian's books to life and well worth the time spent watching it.
Notes: The storm scene may make you a bit queasy!!
Czarina's Caustic Comment or Captious Compliment: Masterfully done, this movie commands a viewing.
Czarina and Commander
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