Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World Reviewby Laura Clifford (laura AT reelingreviews DOT com)
November 11th, 2003
MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD
It 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.
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