MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD
"It's a $135 million art film," proclaims Russell Crowe in The New York Times about Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, the noble gamble co-financed by 20th Century Fox, Universal and Miramax. An "art film" may be anathema in some circles, but if it describes a big-budget studio movie without a moment of stupidity or pandering, more power to the powers-that-be who decided to green-light this spectacularly mature high-seas adventure.
Adapted by director Peter Weir and John Collee from the first and tenth volumes in Patrick O'Brian's beloved series of novels, Master and Commander has a palpable authenticity right from its opening minutes, as the warship HMS Surprise cruises through dense fog off the coast of Brazil in the spring of 1805. The creaking of wood, the lapping of the waves, the weariness of the young crew--everything feels right, and the audience is transported back in time. Hollom, a nervous junior officer, thinks he spies something looming in the distance, and hesitates to sound a warning. Within minutes of being placed on alert, the Surprise is pounded by the stealthy French vessel Acheron. Only the quick wits of legendary Captain "Lucky" Jack Aubrey allow the Surprise to escape to fight another day.
Aubrey, played with effortless authority by Crowe, is determined to repair his damaged ship and pursue the larger, sleeker, more modern enemy craft. The Surprise makes the long, dangerous journey around Cape Horn, encountering a furious storm, and then a prolonged spell of heat and no wind that leads the crew to believe there's a jinx on board in the form of the unfortunate Hollom. An extended idyll on Galapagos Island brings the unexpected spotting of the Acheron, and an ingenious plan to capture the French ship inspired by the scientific observations of the ship's surgeon and aspiring naturalist, Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany).
The screenplay is episodic, but every episode is filled with vivid details of shipboard life and revealing insights into the personalities of the lively Surprise crew. At the center of the film is the respectful but sometimes contentious relationship between the rugged, charismatic Aubrey and the intellectually passionate Maturin, who spend their down time playing violin and cello duets. Crowe and Bettany previously worked together to splendid effect in A Beautiful Mind, and their teamwork here lifts this manly movie to an unusually civilized plane. A standout among the supporting cast is young Max Pirkis as Lord Blakeney, an amazingly composed 12-year-old midshipman who loses an arm early in the film and plays a key role in the climactic battle. (It's startling to see warriors this young, but the phenomenon is based on historical fact.)
Weir, an excellent director whose credits include Gallipoli, The Year of Living Dangerously, Witness and The Truman Show, has never worked on a scale this large, but he's clearly the ideal man for the job. There's not a false note in the movie, from performance to production design. The Surprise's odyssey is consistently involving, the battle scenes are gripping and clearly staged, and the visual effects (especially in the devastating storm sequence) are seamless.
Modern audiences primed for an artificially generated jolt every ten minutes may have to adjust their sights for an adventure movie that values character over chaos and historical accuracy over hysterical anachronisms. Is Master and Commander art or entertainment? Thinking audiences--and you know who you are--won't even need to ask the question.
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