Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (***¼)

Posted on November 16th, 2003 in Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy

This excellent swashbuckler borders on being an epic, but actually doesn’t try to be. It tells a medium-sized story (not big, not small) about a particular ship of the British Navy (during the Napoleonic Wars) on a particular mission (to sink or capture a bigger, faster French ship). It tells this story very, very well. The British ship, the Surprise, is chasing the French ship, the Acheron, down the Atlantic side of South America, around the Cape, and back up the Pacific side. The Surprise is smaller and slower, with fewer guns, fewer men, and a thinner hull. The Acheron is bigger, faster, has twice as many men and guns, and has a hull that seems impenetrable by British cannon fire.

The captains seem equally matched from a naval tactics perspective. Much like the crew of the Surprise, we don’t get to see or know the French crew except as a cunning and dangerous enemy, a chimera that hunts us and haunts us with equal effectiveness. The captain of the Surprise is Lucky Jack Aubrey, played with complete authority and believability by Russell Crowe. Captain Aubrey is tough but fair, and has (and deserves) the unquestioning respect and loyalty of his crew. Dr. Stephen Maturin, played by Paul Bettany, is the ship’s surgeon. He’s a skillful doctor, but his true calling is that he is a naturalist, and joined the Navy simply because it would take him around the world to see unrecorded new creature and species.

Aubrey and Maturin are long-time friends, and frequently spend evenings together in the captain’s cabin practicing music. This actually works within the story, and does not seem as stilted or affected as it sounds writing it. Their practice seems to flow naturally as part of the British Naval tradition of preserving culture and manners within the ranks of serving officers. We see the officers drinking tea from china cups as they fight raging seas or await the start of a battle, and it does not seem effete or incongruous, and in fact feels the way I presume it was designed to feel, which is that it brings a touch of normality and the familiarity of home to the strange society that is a warship halfway around the world.

The movie itself is nearly flawless. To put this review into perspective, I fully expected to hate this film. I don’t have any special affinity for historical or military stories, I have a love/hate relationship with Russell Crowe (grudgingly love most of his performances, tend to dislike what I can glean about him as a person), and the previews and trailers for this film were nothing but fodder for jokes and derision, as the film, quite frankly, just looked ridiculous to me. Pile on top of that the overlong and overblown title, and I knew this one was a “must miss” for me.

But I kept hearing very good things. And not from paid mouthpieces, but from my usual, trusted sources. So I set aside my skepticism and we went to see it last night, and I’m glad that we did. Russell Crowe does an amazing job as Captain Aubrey – so good, in fact, that within moments of the film starting I forgot that I was watching a “Russell Crowe film” and simply found myself watching the story play out. The acting by the entire cast is nearly perfect, and I qualify that with a “nearly” only because I’m sure somebody somewhere made a mistake or rang false, but I didn’t see it or notice it.

The film takes place entirely in and around the Surprise, so the vast majority of scenes are either on deck or below decks, and these scenes all feel completely authentic. The effects are seamless and unnoticeable, and even though I know they didn’t film scenes with the cast on deck during the vicious storms and high seas depicted in the film, I couldn’t see the effects, only the effect, which is very real. The filmmakers also seemed to pay very close attention to historically accurate details, but in the film they are not highlighted or paraded in front of the audience, but merely serve as backdrop, and their authenticity adds to the reality of the story.

And the story is very complex and real, with two major threads. The first is the pursuit of the Acheron, with the ships changing between hunter and hunted with each new day and shift of wind. Some of the strategy and tactics of naval warfare of the time are shown, but this is not a procedural, and these details are not the gist of the story and are only revealed as necessary to tell the tale. The second major thread is life aboard a British Naval vessel of the period. Aubrey is a good captain, and dines frequently with his officers, even getting tipsy and singing seafaring songs with them and visiting the decks in his inebriated state, which seems to bond him even further with his crew.

But he also doles out lashes where appropriate, even to good seamen who have simply crossed the line. And he is also willing to sacrifice his crew members when necessary in the heat of pursuit or battle, but it is done strategically, without malice and with much later regret, the curse of every good military leader. His officers range from seasoned hands to young boys, all loyal and dedicated officers, but with human faults and foibles that play into the story. The crew are a motley but hard-working bunch, and while mutiny is never a possibility in this story, we see that it is only the crew’s trust and love for their captain coupled with the iron-fisted chain of military command that keeps this from happening.

So, if you are skeptical, like I was, and don’t have any particular affinity for swashbucklers or military stories, or any great affection for period pieces or Russell Crowe, I urge you to put all that aside and go see this film. There are no martial arts, no sunglasses, no serial killers, no sex, no (gratuitous) gore, no quick cuts, no anachronisms, no time travelers, no robots, no teen angst, no May/December romances, and no hip soundtrack. Thank god.

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