Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Director : Peter Weir
Screenplay : Peter Weir & John Collee (based on the novels by Patrick O'Brian)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2003
Stars : Russell Crowe (Capt. Jack Aubrey), Paul Bettany (Dr. Stephen Maturin), James D'Arcy (1st Lt. Tom Pullings), Edward Woodall (2nd Lt. William Mowett), Chris Larkin (Capt. Howard), Max Pirkis (Lord Blakeney), Jack Randall (Boyle), Max Benitz (Calamy), Lee Ingleby (Hollom), Richard Pates (Williamson), Robert Pugh (Mr. Allen), Richard McCabe (Mr. Higgins)
The unwieldiness of the title of Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World owes to the fact that it takes its high-seas adventure yarn from two of Patrick’s O’Brian’s popular series of books following the exploits of Capt. Jack Aubrey of the early 19th-century British Royal Navy. Embodied on screen by Russell Crowe (A Beautiful Mind), who has gained weight and grown out his hair, Aubrey is a man’s man, a tough yet understanding leader who knows exactly how to motivate the 197 souls aboard his ship, the HMS Surprise. Crowe gives a tough, robust performance; his rare combination of marquee idol star power and commanding acting prowess translates perfectly on-screen into Aubrey’s rare combination of humanist charm and no-nonsense leadership. It’s hard to imagine any other actor in the role.
With the exception of a brief interlude on the Galapagos Islands, all of Master and Commander takes place aboard the HMS Surprise. Director Peter Weir (The Truman Show), a stickler for meticulous detail and a master of atmosphere and environment, brings to palpable life the tough living conditions aboard a seafaring vessel circa 1805. He takes his time with the film’s opening moments, allowing the camera to roam about the dank, stuffy interior of the ship, which contrasts mightily with the majestic aerial shots he uses to take in its entirety as it cuts through ocean waves. It doesn’t even matter if you can’t understand half the sailor jargon that is thrown about by the characters—you still get a tangible sense of the difficulties and excitements of life onboard. Never has watching men unfurl sails and tug on ropes been so exciting.
The heart of the story, though, is in the relationship between Aubrey and the ship’s surgeon, a naturalist named Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany, Crowe’s A Beautiful Mind costar), who stands in for the film’s guiding moral voice. Aubrey and Maturin are both best friends and polar opposites, which comes out repeatedly in their conflicting desires. Aubrey, awash in patriotic and personal honor, wants nothing but victory over the Napoleonic French, while Maturin, thrilled to be on the cusp on scientific enlightenment, yearns for discovery and new knowledge. They are, in a sense, two sides of the same coin, which points up both their connections and their differences.
In pursuit of a mysterious French vessel that is bigger, faster, and carries more men, Aubrey is all steely determination; he cries out for vengeance in the name of England, but Maturin rightly sees that his quest for victory is as much about his own pride as it is about protecting the motherland. Maturin, for all his humanism, occupies a conflicted space, that of both warrior and naturalist. He understands the necessities of warfare, but at the same time he is more preoccupied with discovering new species on the Galapagos Islands that he is in facing down Napoleon’s ships. Although his nose-dangling spectacles and skinny muttonchops give him the physical appearance of a dandy, Maturin turns out to be the toughest character in the movie when he performs surgery on himself (sans anesthesia) to remove a bullet from his gut (that the scene is both gut-wrenching and often funny is a tribute to both the great performances and Weir’s subtle direction).
If Master and Commander has a weakness, it is that the script by Weir and John Collee never quite builds up a head of narrative steam that can be maintained for the duration. Perhaps because the story is cobbled together from two different books (having not read any of them, I cannot attest to how well the page was adapted to the screen), the movie often feels episodic, rather than epic. The quest to find and defeat the French vessel is the story’s consistent thread, but that ship is often more of an abstraction than a concrete enemy, particularly in the way the sailors refer to it as a “ghost ship” that appears out of the fogbank and then disappears again.
The other plot lines that make up the narrative range in emotional tone, but virtually all of them work because they are clearly character-driven. There is one particularly heartbreaking story about a meek midshipman named Hollom (Lee Ingleby) who is blamed by the superstitious sailors for bringing on bad luck, which drives him to a tragic, but seemingly inevitable decision. Another crucial character is Lord Blakeney (newcomer Max Pirkis), who is barely a teenager, yet is given life-and-death responsibilities in the thick of battle (he is also interesting in the way he straddles Aubrey and Maturin, modeling himself after the best qualities of both of them).
The finest moments in Master and Commander bring us right into its world; we can literally smell the dank inside the ship’s quarters, taste the wine they drink at night, and feel the roll of the ocean. Weir lets the film get away from him a bit in the action sequences, particularly the final battle between the HMS Surprise and the French ship, which is so hectically edited that it becomes one big, incoherent blur (it doesn’t help that most of the men, French and English, look similar, so it’s hard to tell who’s doing what to whom). Yet, even amidst all the chaos, Aubrey continues to stand tall without ever seeming like an impossible superman, which is Crowe’s boldest achievement: He conveys absolute authority without ever sacrificing his character’s flawed humanity. When he tells Maturin to find a shrub on Galapagos and name it after him, something “prickly and difficult to eradicate,” we smile because it’s humorously self-deprecating, but more so because we recognize it as a perfect summation of Aubrey’s indelible character.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick