Laura Clifford Robin CliffordIt is 1805 and Napoleon is threatening the British. Captain Jack Aubrey's (Russell Crowe, "A Beautiful Mind") orders are to follow the French frigate Acheron as far as the coast of Brazil and stymie her efforts to reach the Pacific by burning her, sinking her or taking her as a prize. Aubrey's H.M.S. Surprise seems dubiously named, though, when the Acheron springs up out of nowhere to attack. Aubrey's crew begins to mutter about phantom ships and cursed seamen but they follow Lucky Jack as he pursues his foe well past Brazil's borders in "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World."
Director Peter Weir ("The Truman Show") adapts the popular novels of Patrick O'Brian (with coscreenwriter John Collee) and delivers a rousing adventure which explores themes of leadership and duty vs. ego set against colorful subplots regarding the superstitions of seamen and natural history discoveries. Russell Crowe and his former costar Paul Bettany ("A Beautiful Mind," "A Knight's Tale") are perfectly cast as best friends and opposites, the charismatic Captain Jack and his studious ship's doctor, Stephen Maturin.
Weir wastes no time giving his audience a taste of British Navy life during the Napoleonic Wars. Cinematographer Russell Boyd ("American Outlaws," "Liar Liar") paints a beautiful picture of a watch change, with black silhouetted seaman scurrying up and down roped rigging against white sails. When midshipman Hollom (Lee Ingleby, "Borstal Boy") sees a fleeting image in a fogbank, though, the beauty quickly turns to carnage. After the H.M.S. Surprise is pummelled by the Acheron's 44, longer range guns, Doctor Maturin is faced with amputating the arm of painfully young midshipman Lord Blakeney (Max Pirkis) and performing on deck brain surgery on seaman Joe Plaice (George Innes,"Last Orders).
Having refit in the shoals off Brazil's coast, Aubrey is flummoxed to once again have the phantom ship appear on his tail, but a deft bit of trickery and maneuvering gives him the upper hand. Heading towards the Horn at full sail with a storm brewing, the Surprise is on the Acheron's tail but Plaice, who has become the crew's prophesier since his surgery, warns 'She's a devil ship leading us into a trap.' Maturin, who thinks Aubrey has gone too far, is assuaged with the promise of a stop at the Galapagos Islands, but after the tantalizing view of swimming iguanas and flightless cormorants, Aubrey reneges citing duty. When Maturin is dangerously injured, Aubrey's guilt leads him back to the Galapagos where the doctor himself will ironically find Aubrey's foe.
This is a tale of men that should, nonetheless, appeal to all audiences. Crowe is dashing, a strong leader who grapples with the occasional doubt within his own chambers. He commands with authority but understands the necessity of letting one's hair down and allowing his charges an indulgence or two. Crowe's natural delivery of several speeches, both grand and small, and his unshowy delegation of authority, make the loyalty of Aubrey's men believable. Jack Aubrey is a true man's man. Bethany is quieter and more contemplative, giving the type of performance that allows us to see the man think more than act. The supporting cast is so large and well cast it is impossible to note them all, but a few stand out. Young Max Pirkis is impressive as the privileged son who proves his mettle, a boy with the face of an angel perfectly capable of man's battle. David Threlfall ("Patriot Games") provides much of the film's humor as Aubrey's 'man' Killick, a servant with a a caustic comment always at the ready. Lee Ingleby is sympathetic, terrified of his responsibility, always making the wrong choice as the underachieving Hollom who becomes the crew's scapegoat and James D'Arcy (TV's "Nicholas Nickelby") gives a good showing of modest ability as Aubrey's right hand man Tom Pullings.
The production is impressive, never hinting that its vast oceans were contained within a studio tank. The storm which takes the Surprise's mast and one of its most popular seaman is frightening, one of the best portrayed on film since Ridley Scott's "White Squall." Small character details, such as the slight cauliflowering of Aubrey's ear and a scar across Pullings' cheek, add authenticity.
"Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" is being positioned as Oscar fare, but the film doesn't quite vibrate with greatness. It is, however, a solidly crafted adventure tale peopled with characters that would be welcome in another.
It’s 1805 and England is at war with Napoleonic France. Lucky Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), commander of the HMS Surprise, is ordered to chase the powerful French privateer ship, Acheron, all the way to Brazil, if necessary, and sink her. But, the Frenchman in command of the opposing vessel is smart and has more guns and armament than the Surprise. This phantom gets the drop on Aubrey and near disaster ensues, with Jack and crew barely escaping destruction. Once they lick their wounds and repair the damage Jack prepares to journey 12,000 miles to best his enemy in Peter Weir’s “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.”
This is a big budget, well-crafted swashbuckling adventure that reps a bow to the great sea faring films like “Captain Blood,” The Sea Hawk” and “Against All Flags.” Emperor Napoleon is challenging the long time domination of the seas by the British Empire. The French leader commissioned privately owned ships of the line to raid, under the authority of the his flag, Britain’s water-bound lifeline. The Acheron is just such a vessel, well built in New England and heavily gunned with her long reaching cannon. When Jack is ambushed out of the fog by the enemy captain, he barely escapes and has to come up with a different strategy if he is to defeat his enemy.
The story, based on the sea-faring adventures, by Patrick O’Brian, of Lucky Jack and his close friend and ship’s surgeon, Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Betany), is a straightforward cat and mouse chase that ventures to Brazil, the dangerous Cape Horn at the very end of South America and into the waters of the Galapagos Islands - much to Dr. Maturin’s delight and chagrin. The naturalist sees the unique opportunity to study the flora and fauna of the remote islands but is thwarted when the war intrudes on his studies.
This is a manly man’s adventure with Crowe being the first among equals in the film’s large cast. Captain Jack leads his loyal crew into the jaws of death with such skill and courage as to keep his men in awe. It doesn’t hurt that he keeps substantial amounts of rum to dole out to them in liberal rations for their devotion. The story is about life aboard ship in a time where wood and sail ruled the seas and the first globe-spanning war took place between the then-super powers of Britain and France. It gives us the microscopic viewpoint of one British ship’s captain in pursuit of his sworn enemy is superior in nearly every way. The tale follows Lucky Jack and his men as he overextends his authority and chases his heavily armed prey far beyond the dictates of his orders. While it is a rocky road they travel, the crew believes in their captain and will follow him to death’s door if necessary.
Crowe and Betany come across as real friends with a shared penchant for chamber music as Jack plays the violin and his friend the cello as they entertain themselves and annoy the less discerning members of the crew. Helmer Weir, working with a script by John Collee, takes this friendship, the chase after their foe half way around the world and the naturalist’s wonder at the diversity of unique life on the Galapagos Islands and combines it into a rousing nautical adventure. The story is a bit flat – from the beginning, there is no doubt as to the final outcome – but it is done in a well-crafted way that reminds of the big Hollywood swashbucklers of the 40’s and 50’s.
Russell Crowe gives a serviceable performance as Lucky Jack but the supporting cast has some gems. Paul Betany does fine as Jack’s friend and occasional muse and young Max Pirkis as midshipman Lord Blakeney, a boy who wants so desperately to be a man. The rest of the cast help to bring out the camaraderie of a well-trained and well-treated crew facing death in battle.
Director Peter Weir benefits from his talented behind-the-lens team. Cinematographer Russell Boyd does a terrific job in capturing the battle sequences and, as he photographs the two ships joining in battle, gets a look that is reminiscent of the old paintings of the USS Constitution making naval history against the British. The production design, by William Sandell, puts you on board the Surprise in a sometimes too pristine fashion.
There is an episodic feel to “Master & Commander” that tells of its source material, by Patrick O’Brian, of the escapades of Jack and his crew. There are the set battle pieces, as Aubrey must outwit his enemy to win. Dr. Maturin gets his due as he beats Charles Darwin to the punch with his visit to the natural wonders of the Galapagos Islands. There is intrigue when the good doctor is accidentally shot and he must perform the operation – physician, heal thyself. But, the story is well paced and exciting.
“Master & Commander” is a man’s movie and lacks the femme appeal (except, maybe, Crowe) to draw in the ladies. It is a well-made sea-faring adventure with lots of action and philosophizing about God and country. The ship battles are expertly handled and visually stunning. I give it a B+.
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