Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World Review

by Robin Clifford (robin AT reelingreviews DOT com)
November 4th, 2003

"Master and Commander"

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 of Good Hope 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 Bettany 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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