Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (United States, 2003)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Some might believe that the unexpected success of Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean has resulted in a sudden upsurge in interest about high seas derring-do, but anyone expecting a "spillover" effect to generate a box office ripple for Peter Weir's Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World will likely be disappointed. The two films (Pirates and Master and Commander) have little in common except that both involve seafaring ships. One is pure fantasy; the other (although not based on a true story) takes rigors to be historically accurate. One is designed to please popcorn munching crowds of distracted teenagers; the other has been made for adult viewers who are interested in what it might really have been like to live on a tall ship.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is based on the exploits of characters created by 20th Century author Patrick O'Brian, who wrote 20 novels centered around the adventures of Captain "Lucky" Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) and Doctor Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany). Although Master and Commander uses the general plot thrust of O'Brian's The Far Side of the World, it changes and deletes key elements and borrows select details from many of the other books in the series. The screenplay was written by Weir and John Collee, who, if anything, may have tried to cram too much of O'Brian's written material into the final script. Judicious cutting could have resulted in a tremendous sea-bound adventure.

When the movie opens, it is August 1805 and the Napoleonic Wars are in full swing. Nowhere is the fear of Napoleon becoming Emperor of the World more prevalent than in England, where the anti-French sentiment is the strongest. So, in April of that year, the HMS Surprise, commanded by Captain Aubrey, is stationed off the east coast of Brazil with the mission of stopping the French privateer Acheron. The first engagement is a near disaster for the Surprise; the French ship is bigger, faster, and has more guns. Only the presence of a fogbank saves Aubrey and his crew. Thereafter, a chase begins, with the Surprise pursuing the Acheron south through the Atlantic Ocean, around Cape Horn, and through the Pacific to the Galapagos Islands. The longer the chase goes on, the less clear it becomes who is the pursuer and who is the pursued in this high-stakes cat-and-mouse game.

Master and Commander opens and closes with rousing battle scenes. The interim 75-odd minutes include character building, crew interaction, and details concerning what life was like on a ship in Nelson's navy. There are a few tense moments, such as when the Surprise encounters a typhoon off the coast of Cape Horn, but much of the film's protracted middle segment concerns more mundane matters. Some of this stuff - such as Maturin teaching a willing "disciple" about his naturalist hobby - is fascinating. Other elements seem pointless. At least one subplot involving an officer who is disliked by the enlisted men and wonders if he is cursed, could easily have been excised, resulting in a tighter storyline. The biggest problem the film has is getting its audience from one battle scene to the other without putting them to sleep. A less deliberate pace during the middle third would have made the job easier.

The film looks marvelous from start to finish. In fact, this may be the best-looking film ever made about a seafaring vessel. The filmmakers carefully researched ships of the era and spent time and money doing the best possible job re-creating the era. Digital effects are seamlessly incorporated, so there's never a sense that what's on-screen is anything but the real thing. And the typhoon is more real than any previous at-sea storm (such as the one in The Perfect Storm). Part of the reason for this is that Weir shot footage of an actual typhoon specifically to be used during this portion of the movie. So what we're seeing is not all the creation of special effects. The verisimilitude extends to the locations. The only land-based portions of the film take place on the Galapagos Islands, and Master and Commander became the first movie ever to shoot there.

The film's emotional core is the relationship between Aubrey and Maturin. In terms of personalities, they are opposites. Aubrey is a rash, flamboyant warrior given to excesses of drink and courage. Maturin is far more reserved, preferring intellectual pursuits and loving his pre-Darwin naturalist studies more than his duties as ship's doctor. When the officers are singing a song, he is always the last to join in. Despite their differences, however, these two are fast friends, and each has a deep and abiding respect for the other. Actors Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany, who previously worked together on A Beautiful Mind, successfully capture the characters' personalities and interaction. For Crowe, this is another acting triumph - an opportunity once again to highlight his versatility. Crowe's ego may make him difficult to work alongside, but his performance speaks for itself.

Since the entire movie is presented from the Surprise's perspective, the French are viewed as distant, impersonal enemies. It's the right choice, because it makes them more intimidating, thereby increasing the tension when the two ships come into conflict. Weir wisely refrains from giving us any token point-of-view shots from the Acheron. For the entirety of Master and Commander, they are simply the enemy.

By restricting the majority of the action to the ship (with the exception of a few brief scenes on the Galapagos Islands), Weir is able to explore the rivalries and tensions that develop between men who are confined together in a small place under less-than-ideal circumstances. In addition to enduring the typhoon, they must survive frigid weather and snow. And, when the ship becomes becalmed, mutinous impulses begin to rumble beneath the surface.

Peter Weir is a veteran director whose films have always been characterized by their uncommon intelligence. He has been at the helm for the likes of Picnic at Hanging Rock, Witness, Dead Poets Society, Fearless, and The Truman Show. For Master and Commander, Weir has been given a huge budget (rumored to be in excess of $120 million), and every cent of it appears on screen. Nevertheless, for the three collaborating production companies (20th Century Fox, Miramax, and Universal), recovering that money will be a challenge. This is the sort of movie that could easily be lost in the pre-Oscar end-of-year hype. For those with any interest in 18th and 19th century seafaring or naval warfare, this is a must-see motion picture. For others, it's an enlightening and entertaining experience, but there's the issue of the slow middle act to overcome. The problem exists, but it isn't insurmountable, and that's the reason I'm recommending the film.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (United States, 2003)

Run Time: 2:15
U.S. Release Date: 2003-11-14
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1