Film Reviews: Wednesday, November 12, 2003
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World\r\nStarring Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany. Directed by Peter Weir. Written by Peter Weir and John Collee, based on Patrick O’Brian’s novels. Rated PG-13.\r\n
A Right Good Captain, Too

Russell Crowe steers Master and Commander safely into port.


Patrick O’Brian started writing his Master and Commander novels in 1970. Laced with period naval jargon and told with a firm sense of drama, the books take place during the Napoleonic Era and follow the adventures of Capt. Jack Aubrey, a lifelong sailor who rules his ship with a tough but fair hand and scores victories in battle by taking chances and resorting to unusual tactics. The books owe their following to the way O’Brian skillfully interweaves the adventures on the high seas with the complex friendship between Aubrey and the ship’s physician, Dr. Stephen Maturin. A natural scientist and fellow musician, Maturin’s as educated about the wider world as he is ignorant on nautical matters, and he acts as Aubrey’s intellectual alter ego and closest confidant. Because he’s on board as a civilian and has no ambitions for a career in the Navy, he can talk straight to Aubrey, advising him on the men’s morale and questioning him in private as to why a sailor deserves to be flogged for simply refusing to salute an officer.

The big-budget movie and potential first of a franchise, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is loosely based on the tenth of the 20 books in the series. It’s given over to Peter Weir, the veteran Australian filmmaker behind such hits as Witness, Dead Poets Society, and The Truman Show. In contrast to his bitter 1981 anti-war film Gallipoli, this is a much more conventional, old-fashioned battle epic in which all the sailors rally and fight behind the heroic Aubrey (Russell Crowe).

As the film begins, the captain’s Royal Navy frigate the Surprise lies off the coast of Brazil with a crew of 197, waiting for an enemy man o’war called the Acheron, with orders to stop the French ship from reaching the Pacific. Aubrey intends to fulfill his mission despite the fact that the Acheron is larger, faster, and more heavily armed, as he quickly discovers in his calamitous first encounter with it.

Weir does a solid if unspectacular job with the naval yarn. The pace of 19th-century naval combat moves more slowly than we’re used to seeing in a film, and the director stays true to it. The climactic battle in which Aubrey disguises his ship as a whaler is well staged. In the calmer parts of the movie, the film depicts the squalid, overcrowded conditions on shipboard and the primitive state of medicine at the time, especially during a scene in which the doctor catches a stray bullet and has to operate on himself. Weir has always had an eye for natural beauty, and when the ship takes refuge on the Galápagos Islands and Maturin goes forth to observe the wildlife, it gives him the occasion to create a breathtaking interlude.

Still, he can’t entirely keep the proceedings from going slack. The story about a lieutenant (James D’Arcy) who can’t earn the men’s respect is played as a tragic subplot, but it has no heft. The other men aren’t strongly characterized, which is too bad, since this expansive film definitely has the time to do it. Then again, finely detailed characterization has never been Weir’s strong suit, even in his smaller movies such as Green Card. He’s more at home with pictorialism and visual sweep, and in this film his directorial touch seems more impersonal than ever.

The movie might well go entirely adrift if Crowe’s magnetism didn’t act as a polestar. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that this actor who has become famous for playing loners comes through portraying a great leader of men. This is true even though his English accent makes him sound like Noël Coward, which is an odd effect indeed. His battle cry of “For England, for home, and for the prize!” will send permanent chills up your spine, but it’s the proud way he carries himself in the day-to-day routine of the ship that convinces you why the sailors fight for him.

It’s too bad that Paul Bettany can’t match him as Maturin. Weird, too, because if you’ve seen this young, angular English actor as a vainglorious Geoffrey Chaucer in A Knight’s Tale or as a sadistic hood in Gangster No. 1, you know that he can be an electrifying presence on screen. Here he’s insistently low-key, and he delivers his lines in a refined whisper. The delivery is true to the character, and the lack of fireworks from him may very well come from a desire to be as opposite to Crowe’s performance as possible. Even so, he defers too much to his Oscar-winning co-star. You never get the sense that Aubrey and Maturin are on equal footing. One of the key elements to the books’ success, this relationship gets short shrift.

In the end, the density and richness of O’Brian’s literary achievement is flattened and impoverished by the movie. Other directors might have done justice to it, but Weir falls just short. That’s why Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World commands one’s sober approval rather than one’s enthusiastic applause.

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