Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World Review

by Richard A. Zwelling (razwee AT yahoo DOT com)
November 24th, 2003

** (out of ****)
a film review by
Richard A. Zwelling

There is no denying the directorial talents of Peter Weir (The Truman Show, Dead Poets Society, The Year of Living Dangerously), nor the talents of the countless others who put work into Master and Commander, which is masterfully shot, wonderfully acted, and meticulously edited.

The bottom line, however, is that the film is tedious, unengrossing, and way too long. Some films merit extended lengths (not the least of which is the third chapter of a certain fantasy trilogy due in one month), but this is only if the extended length involves tightly packed material that cannot be trimmed. Such is not the case with Master and Commander. Several sequences (especially the battle sequences and bouts with the ocean) drag on and on with a repetitiveness that eschews purpose.

In addition, it is during these sequences that it becomes remarkably difficult to gauge what is going on. It does not help that the lingo spoken by the ship's crew is about as easy to discern as the words of a Scotsman presiding over a high-speed auction. Granted, this is in keeping with the fictional tales of Patrick O'Brian (from which the story of this film is taken), but in my personal case (and it might well be different for others), I found it frustrating to be in the midst of an ocean (no pun intended) of repetitive shot sequences and incomprehensible dialogue.

Which brings me to the performances. Russell Crowe is, hands-down, made for the role of Jack Aubrey, captain of the British ship Surprise. His brusque, rugged appearance and his self-assured poise provide the necessary prerequisites for portraying a steadfast leader on the high seas. While nothing extraordinary, Crowe's work provides the believable image of a man who is respected and revered by his mates.

However, I found the standout performance to belong to Paul Bettany, who plays the ship's doctor, Steven Maturin. (You might last remember Crowe and Bettany together in A Beautiful Mind as John Nash and the Princeton roommate). As a more introverted man, with a greater reverence for nature than for war and strategy, Maturin provides an interesting reflection of Aubrey. Their scenes together sparkle with energy and show the inner workings of two men who are intelligent and considerate in their thinking, despite their divergent interests. Bettany's performance is top-notch and provides for the delightful, but unfortunately sparse, introspection that the film allows.
Then there's the enemy of the Surprise, the French ship Acheron. Being set in 1805, the story is right in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars, and the British Surprise has been sent to the coasts of Brazil to stop the French vessel. The British crew figures out too late the Acheron has more men and more weaponry. From there begins the chase of hunter and hunted (and the places often trade). Some critics have compared the Acheron to the shark in Jaws, in that you never see much of it until late in the film. Such an analogy is a bit ill-advised, in my opinion. The shark did not need personality (or indeed anything) for us to be scared of it; not so with a ship that involves a thinking captain and an entourage of men. With no knowledge of an enemy that needs some exposition, the drama is weakened, and the emotional investment in the cat-and-mouse game becomes near

While not vacuous, Master and Commander is a lethargic 135 minutes, and while the film is serious and historical in its tone, I found the flippant Pirates of the Caribbean to be a more enjoyable ride.

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