Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World Reviewby Andy Keast (arthistoryguy AT aol DOT com)
December 19th, 2003
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World: 4 stars out of 4. Directed by Peter Weir.
Screenplay by Weir and John Collee, based on the novels by Patrick O'Brian. Starring Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, and James D'Arcy.
by Andy Keast
This movie is layered so well that it should make Peter Weir fans happy and entertain those who just desire a solid piece of filmmaking. The trailers have sold this to you as a rousing, kinetic action film. It's not. On the flip side of that coin, the backlash set in after it's trailers hit: "It's oscar bait." "It's a Russell Crowe vehicle." "It's another boat movie." And so it is. But let me sell you on who made it...
Peter Weir has been making movies for over thirty years, consistently drawn to what have been routinely described as fish-out-of-water stories or man-versus-the-elements stories. His "Picnic at Hanging Rock" sends a group of schoolchildren on a daytrip to the outback, where three of them vanish and are never seen again. In "The Last Wave," Richard Chamberlain is a pragmatic lawyer
who begins to have premonitory dreams of apocalypse. In "Witness," Harrison Ford is a hard-boiled cop who, in order to protect a murder witness, has to flee to the Pennsylvania countryside and almost doesn't come back. If Weir's (best) movies have something in common, they're about how human beings are dwarfed by the world and can't adapt. In "Master and Commander," a British frigate is caught in a stalking match with a French warship in the south Atlantic, and the soldiers onboard are indeed changed and humbled by what happens.
There is action and fighting in the movie, but it works so well because you actually care about the characters and for events that take place. The performances are subtle and internalized; the actors don't telegraph their "characteristics" with lame exposition. A standout is Paul Bettany as the ship's doctor, a voice of reason when reason's place is elsewhere. Russell Crowe's performance isn't "Russell Crowe playing a sea captain," but actually evokes complex human feelings and reminded me of Harrison Ford in Weir's "The Mosquito Coast," feeding his obsessions at the cost of everyone else around him.
One could describe it as a war movie. It's more about claustrophobia and, I suppose, how war engagement only engages helpless people into a something they don't understand. It was photographed by Russell Boyd, who served as cinematographer for Weir back in his early days in Australia. Both men are fascinated by how too distant a venture can confound one who isn't ready for it. When the ship visits the Galapagos islands, it's filmed as if it were an alien planet, mostly through telescopes or telephoto lenses.
Subtext aside, "Master and Commander" is an action film, only an example of what the action film genre used to be like. It could be riveting without showing you explosions every ten minutes, before scripts de-evolved into clotheslines upon which to hang overblown set pieces ("The Matrix," anyone?), and before the cop-out of digital effects replaced character development with CGI. I guess that's what the critics mean when they describe this as "old fashioned."
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