movie film review | chris tookey

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Fox/Universal/Miramax. Photo by Stephen Vaughan - all rights reserved
  Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World Review
Tookey's Rating
9 /10
Average Rating
7.81 /10
Capt. Jack Aubrey: Russell Crowe , Dr. Stephen Maturin: Paul Bettany
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Directed by: Peter Weir
Written by: Peter Weir, John Collee

Released: 2003
Origin: US
Colour: C
Length: 135

Masterly and commanding - the greatest naval epic of all time.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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Here is the first film to show us with power and accuracy how it must have been like to sail in Nelson's time as a British seaman. Purely as an amazing you-are-there historical recreation, it would be worth five stars. But, based on one of Patrick O'Brian's finest sea stories, it's also a ripping yarn.

Though a New Zealander and reared himself on the far side of the world, Russell Crowe was born to play the Englishman's Englishman "Lucky" Jack Aubrey, captain of the fighting ship, the Surprise. Just as he did in Gladiator, Crowe radiates masculinity, determination and drive. You can see how a smile from this father of his ship to a nervous sailor would instantly raise morale.

The character embodies the virtues of self-discipline, responsibility and charismatic leadership, which seem newly fashionable again after England's triumph in the World Cup. We can see that Aubrey has an eye for a pretty woman, a liking for corny jokes, and a taste for booze when he wants to relax.

One of Crowe's rare talents is that he has no problem with an English accent or period dialogue. When he brusquely commends the rival French captain with the words "Damn fine gunnery", there's no temptation to laugh.

Crowe emanates just the right quality of an overgrown schoolboy having the time of his life. One of my favourite moments comes when he sends a young man off on a dangerous errand and welcomes back the quaking lad with the words "Now tell me that wasn't fun!"

Another great moment comes when Aubrey addresses his crew before the final speech and does his Henry V-style "This ship is England" speech. It's well-written by director Peter Weir and his co-writer John Collee, but raised to a higher level by Crowe, who has one of the most resonant voices in cinema, and knows exactly how to use it.

Almost as impressive, in his less showy way, is Paul Bettany, playing Stephen Maturin, Aubrey's doctor, sidekick, confidante and conscience. The two actors worked together superbly in A Beautiful Mind. They're better here.

This particular O'Brian book, the tenth of twenty about these two characters, was a shrewd choice to kick off what promises to be a momentous series of films, since it creates some very real tension and conflict between his two heroes. The story may celebrate authority and command, but Maturin is always at hand to remind Aubrey that power can also corrupt.

The plot is also clever in the way it compares and integrates Maturin's pre-Darwinian ideas on the survival of the fittest with Aubrey's need to find new tactics against the French ship's superior technology.

Peter Weir's forte up to now has been in intimate movies, such as Witness and Dead Poets Society; but, confronted by his biggest challenge to date, he is anything but all at sea. He makes inspired use of an evidently huge budget and state-of-the-art special effects which, like most truly special effects, are virtually unnoticeable.

For sheer scale and minute attention to detail, this is the only movie of recent years to come close to Peter Jackson's work on Lord of the Rings. Had Patrick O'Brian, always a stickler for accuracy, lived to see the movie, I'm sure he would have been thrilled.

The story is almost absurdly straightforward. Aubrey's ship is surprised in a sea fog and damaged by the very French Privateer that he has orders from the Admiralty to destroy. (In the original novel, the villain is an American ship, but you can see why a Hollywood studio wanted that changed.) From then on, it's a cat and mouse game off the coast of Brazil, around Cape Horn in a typhoon, through a period when the ship becomes becalmed, and then to a final showdown off the Galapagos Islands.

The pace does sag slightly in the middle, and the story itself gets becalmed; but the acting, production values and integrity of the production keep the thing afloat. Everything feels painstakingly researched, from the stitching on every costume to the state of the men's hair and teeth, from the naval tactics and armaments to the relations between different ranks on board.

Even the dialogue and attitudes, often disappointingly anachronistic in Hollywood productions, seem uncannily true to the period.

Will women respond to this derring-do as much as men? I'm not sure. There's no romance involved. However, Crowe is at least as attractive as he was in Gladiator. All the human relationships seem authentic and deeply felt, and this is more than just another wartime action adventure. You'll wince at the way surgery had to be conducted in those times, and marvel at the courage needed to survive a battle at sea. And it's a shock to discover just how young some of the crew were.

Like Spielberg's masterly account of the D-Day landings in Saving Private Ryan, Master and Commander makes you newly appreciative of former generations. It is no bad thing for our technologically arrogant age to feel, occasionally, humbled by the achievements of our ancestors.

Master and Commander deserves to be a worldwide hit and is bound to be a formidable contender at next year's Academy Awards. It makes all previous seafaring movies look very thin indeed.

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