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Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World Review

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One of the best interpretations of a much-loved literary source

by Chris McEneany May 20, 2008

  • Movies review


    Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World Review
    Ten of ten, folks. No question about it.Quite simply, Master And Commander is a work of absolute cinematic genius from a crew of actors and filmmakers who all set sail, all pulled together and all perfected one of the most engrossing, authentic and stirring historical epics ever made. Strong sentiments indeed - but fully justified. The following coverage of the US Region A disc will present the reasons why Peter Weir's monumental Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World is a masterpiece as far as I am concerned.

    “England is under threat of invasion, and though we be on the far side of the world, this ship is our home. This ship ... is England. So it's every hand to his rope or gun - quick's the word and sharp's the action. After all ... surprise is on our side.”

    The year is 1805 and HMS Surprise is engaged in a devilish battle of wits with a superior-built, better armed French vessel called the Acheron. Russell Crowe's personable, but determined Captain “Lucky” Jack Aubrey has been outwitted and outgunned and out-navigated across the ocean by his nemesis for too long. Now, he must find the tactics and the guile to live up to his ship's name and take the battle back to the French. His men will follow him anywhere, his instincts are second-to-none and the scene is set for a savage showdown on the high seas that will push them all to their limits, and severely test his friendship with long-suffering ship's surgeon Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany). But with their little floating chunk of England and his own reputation on the firing line, Aubrey will give no quarter and stop at nothing to secure victory and the prize for himself and his valiant crew. Along the way, they will all encounter superstition, grievous loss, the haunting tranquillity of the virtually unexplored Galapagos Islands and learn that fortune favours the bold, the devious and the canny. Acclaimed director Peter Weir's mission is to cleave this story from the late Patrick O'Brian's award-winning and hugely popular series of novels and create a wholly convincing seafaring adventure like no other.

    That he succeeds in every single department of the production is nothing short of miraculous. Like sea-shanties themselves, the genre appeals to a niche market and one that, unfortunately for Weir, seems to prefer undead pirates, novelty-act swashbuckling and big concept, low-brow entertainment. But, to his credit, Weir and his armada of crew, actors and writers, ignore the temptation to either dumb-down, dress-up or condescend to the masses. And, given the might of Hollywood's hunger for the easy dollar, this is a brave tactic indeed.

    “The Surprise is a somewhat aged man-o-war. Am I not correct?”
    “Would you call me an aged man-o-war, doctor? The Surprise is not old - no one would call her old. She has a bluff bow, lovely lines. She's a fine seabird: weatherly, stiff and fast... very fast, if she's well handled. No, she's not old ... she's in her prime.”

    In short, Master And Commander press-gangs us, trains us and takes us on a journey that is genuinely experienced, rather than merely viewed from the other side of a screen. And, in so doing, Peter Weir's film also reveals a profound maturity lacking in the majority of modern motion pictures. We join the crew of the Surprise and are not given one iota of backstory, no exposition, and no needless explanation as to who is who, what is what or any heavy-handed cinematic waffle other than what their actual mission is. Relationships happen as though we have simply been plonked down in the middle of them and events unfurl with a natural, free-flowing grace, a beautiful succinctness and strangely meandering quality that informs, lulls, entertains and stimulates. Weir had a difficult task ahead of him when he undertook the job of bringing Aubrey, Maturin, the Surprise and the phantom-like Acheron to life, but his decision to embrace the vast, twenty-book series by virtue of entering it at precisely the middle tale was a stroke of genius. Having read all of O'Brian's weighty “Lucky” Jack books and loved them immensely, I can testify that the movie incarnation of not just Jack, but all of the crew and their lifestyle and exploits are exactly, one-hundred per cent spot-on to the attitude, spirit and character that the celebrated author so finely crafted. What Weir had to do in shaping an accessible entry into Aubrey's world was somehow condense the epic saga into one logical and linear story. O'Brian's books don't just take place at sea as Aubrey and Maturin have many episodes on dry land - but this element was correctly deemed too distracting to the steady, rhythmic beat of the wave-rolling pursuit narrative. Jack's awkward portside womanising had to get the chop here, and justifiably too, as although the fairer sex definitely play a part in the books, their inclusion here would have inevitably sailed the plot into more conventional waters. Maturin's sideline in naval espionage for the Admiralty also had to go since it would have no relevant bearing on this particular story. And, of course, there are several more alterations made to the source novel, such as the enemy vessel's original nationality being changed from American to French and the time period brought back a little from 1812 from 1805 - but these modifications don't hurt at all. What Weir needed to do was streamline the voyage to its bare plot essentials, retaining the time and leisure to embrace the wealth of atmosphere, realism and intricacy that would effectively place us aboard the Surprise - real-life vessel, the Rose - and intimately in the company of these salt-veined characters that O'Brian brought to vivid life.

    “Name a shrub after me - something prickly and hard to eradicate.”

    If Weir is the Admiral then Russell Crowe surely epitomises the true Captain of this voyage. Having already proved his mettle in gung-ho but sensitive warriors with his magnificent and Oscar-winning performance in Gladiator, the gruff actor was still a somewhat unusual choice for the erudite, courageous and ultimately cultured Jack Aubrey. But, with customary dedication, Crowe stuffed his face with savouries to increase his girth to poop-deck-strutting proportions and wallowed in the character that Patrick O'Brian took twenty volumes of seafaring adventure to fully create. At once commanding and humane, Crowe finds the core essence of Aubrey and crafts one of the most affecting and memorable characters that he has yet played. Getting his chubby fingers to grips with a violin and spouting Nelson-esque blarney with absolute zeal and authority, he skilfully weaves in and out of Aubrey's stern, mission and duty-bound devotion, his tremendous love and enthusiasm for the sea and for the thrill of the chase, and his impeccable respect and commitment to the men under his command. Shades of Maximus manifest themselves with regards to the love that his men have for him, and his towering strength when leading from the front and cutting through the enemy, but the sentiment and cherished conversations he has with his best friend and confidante, Stephen Maturin, reveal a whole new dimension of depth and nuance, authority and vulnerability that prove Crowe is still one of most intuitive and intensely-prepared actors of his generation. Occasionally, he may exhibit the shouty abruptness that we know so well, but ... ahem, he is the Captain, after all. But Crowe exudes a genuine tenderness in some scenes that, by necessity of his character's rank and status, he has to be seen also to rein-in, and his ability to convey the impression of welling emotions behind a composed face is second to none. Check out his eyes and earnest expression when he gives a book of Lord Nelson's sea-battles to the injured young midshipman Lord Blakeney (an excellent Max Pirkis, who played Gaius Octavian from the TV show Rome), or when he is counting the horrific cost of the “Butcher's Bill”, or, most splendidly of all, his crisis of conscience when he must place his friend's welfare before his mission and, with a single, unshowy look down upon his stretcher-borne mate awakening to the natural paradise of the Galapagos Islands, you can plainly see, for a second, a sacrificial love that is greater than his obsession with victory. Despite what Crowe's detractors say about him, and paraphrasing the screen-quote about Aubrey's navigational skills of “That's seamanship!”, this is acting and he makes it look so damned easy, too.

    Of course, having the likes of a real-life friend playing your on-screen buddy must help. And in the coolly detached Paul Bettany - who had already worked closely with Crowe on A Beautiful Mind - Weir finds not only the perfect foil to Crowe's Imperial swagger, but also the perfect screen incarnation of ship's surgeon and esteemed naturalist Stephen Maturin, Lucky Jack's best and most trusted friend and ally. Bettany embodies the studious, benevolent and relative seagoing-rookie with a firm grasp on what makes this adventurous academic tick. The relationship between himself and Jack is extraordinary and one of the most crucial elements that glued the literary saga together. Both actively encourage the other in terms of professionalism, competitiveness and the greater good of the ship's complement. But both can also be distanced, provocative and reproachful of the other's actions. Bettany delights in withering comments, exasperation and glances askance, his rhetoric often tired and slightly sarcastic. Yet it is also profoundly clear that either would gladly give his life in order to save the other.

    Great character actors and weathered extras fill out the ship's quota of skivvies, midshipmen, able-seamen, cooks, Royal Marines and gunners. David Threlfall, Shameless's own celebrated waster, Frank Gallagher, is brilliant as the Wolverine-whiskered Captain's cook, Killick, the only man aboard with the temerity to bully Jack Aubrey and berate his excruciating violin-playing - “There they go - scrape, scrape, scrape ... never a tune you can dance to.” LOTR's once-diminutive Pippin, Billy Boyd, brings the scar-faced Barret Bondon to life with impish roguery. Lee Ingleby's melancholic midshipman Hallom is a sweaty, pale quaking wreck, his psychologically pilloried outcast a poisoned hex on the ship - the stuff of pure brine-filled superstition and simple wrong-place, wrong-time bad karma. His descent into withdrawn gulag is spellbinding and pitiful to behold, and Ingleby does a fine job of mixing our emotions about his cloud-mired presence. Even James D'Arcy does well to invest his First Lt. Pullings with a realistic blend of dedication, calm understanding and an exuberant willpower when he can smell blood in the air. But the two standout performances come from the younger crewmembers. Teenage apprentice midshipmen, there by the favour of nobility and not the poaching of the Press-Gang, Lord Blakeney (the afore-mentioned Max Pirkis) and his cohort and mentor, the slightly older Calamy (played by Max Benitz) really shine with wowed appreciation for their never-less-than-exciting opportunity to do outrageous deeds - “Now, tell me that wasn't fun,” says a proud Aubrey when Calamy fulfils the daring act of desperate decoy - and break the heart when compelled to indulge in the unthinkable. Both excel, but little Max Pirkis takes the honours with a moving and delicately heroic performance that Weir handles and encourages with sensitivity. His small gestures of humility, respect and admiration for Maturin, Aubrey and Hallom are marvellously conveyed without any of the saccharine that many younger performers would be unequipped to circumnavigate.

    Even though the film seems to chart leisurely through its expansive running time, there is a lot of incident hauled along for the trip. Whilst daily life and the rigours of working aboard a man-of-war are never once skimped on - the differing etiquette of the men whilst in their own quarters is always oddly compelling - the screenplay allows for a vast and diverse array of interludes to punctuate the waters between battles. Some impromptu surgery - an amputation here, a bullet-removal there and the notorious open-air trepanning and brain-saving-via-silver-coin show that Maturin virtually puts on for an agog crew - and the tremendously eerie discovery that the ship has an unwitting Jonah aboard are the two ends of the seafaring spectrum - science and superstition jostling for supremacy in the hearts and minds of those traversing the deep blue. But the notion of the quest, embodied by Jack's obsession for catching and taking his nemesis as a Prize, and by Stephen's ongoing battle to answer the irresistible calling of the strange and languid Galapagos Islands is at the heart of the story's gravitational pull. It may take it's time, but this is a tale that wants you to live and breathe along with it - and this patience pays endless dividends in a movie that refuses to play by the conventions of its genre.

    “What is it with this man? Did I kill a relative of his in battle, perhaps? His boy, God forbid?”
    “He fights like you, Jack.”

    The cat and mouse game of hunting the Acheron, or rather being hunted by the Acheron is stunningly played out against the endless horizon. Storms, doldrums, even snow dusting the decks - we sample life atop the briny in such a manner as has never been committed to film before. Roger Donaldson attempted something similar with his lavish production of The Bounty for Dino De Laurentiis, weaving an equally intoxicating spell, but even his painstakingly etched recreation pales when compared to the sights and sounds of this expedition. Of course, there is much more to M & C than mere “living history”. The battles, for one thing, have an extraordinary edge to them that truly pummels the senses. Bearing down upon another vessel and letting rip with ranks of canon and musket-fire from the rigging and then boarding it with a frenzy of hack 'n' slash is something that even Peter Weir probably didn't know he could accomplish with such dynamism and energy. Even his classic war film Gallipoli (see separate review) seems positively tame when set against this floating wrecking spree of sword-whirling and percussion-blasting melee. Mind you, just how one crew can tell their own men from the enemy's amidst that smoke-filled maelstrom is beyond me!

    “I tell ya ... the Devil's at the wheel of that there phantom-ship. You'd better hold fast.”

    The eeriness of the fog-smothered sequences and the stark beauty of the wildlife cavorting across the Galapagos under the wondrous eyes of Stephen Maturin and his eager-to-please young protégée - “You have the makings of a naturalist!” he exclaims with reserved delight. “A fighting naturalist ... like you, sir!” comes the touching reply - signpost the mystery and surrealism of the unknown. High-water pursuits with guns angled like gangsters firing at each other from two racing cars make a mockery of the fancy-ass visuals that Pirates Of The Caribbean attempted. The sight of Crowe and D'Arcy sliding in rapid competitive descent from the upper rigging and of Crowe standing proud upon the prow of his one true-love, the Surprise, present the sheer indulgent fun that such men-of-the-sea would possess. The endless work and banter from the crew extols the fact that individuality is never squandered in the face of grimy, mass anonymity and it is a special film indeed that allows us to get to know such a rich and varied cast of characters enough to actually care about what happens to them ... and mourn their loss.

    With Maori-style drums, wind-sifted pipes and dazzling horns, the action of Master And Commander has a raw, visceral sound. Fierce, tribal war-drums beat out the cadence of chaos as battle is joined and elsewhere, the score for the film takes in delightful violin and viola minuets, revered concertos from Mozart, Bach and Boccherini and the irresistibly juxtaposed refinement of Yo-Yo Ma's cello stand-in for Bettany and Richard Tognetti's for Crowe as Aubrey and Maturin engage in their cherished pastime of musical conversation in the Captain's Quarters. Of course, the most memorable piece of music from the movie is the famous “Fantasia On A Theme By Thomas Tallis” from Vaughn Williams - a heartrending lament of searing intensity that, note for soaring note, matches the perfect anguish of Barber's Adagio For Strings, which reduced grown men to tears in the likes of Platoon and The Elephant Man. The effect in Weir's film is no less powerful. The score, composed and arranged by Iva Davis, Christopher Gordon and Richard Tognetti is yet another essential sail catching the wind for this classic film. Primal, eerie, beautiful and touching - it carries a simply gorgeous nautical flavour that marries the folksy to the thematically stirring, with waves of strings and the insistent pounding of the drums.

    So there you have it. Master And Commander is one of the best interpretations of a much-loved literary source, standing right alongside Peter Jackson's Rings Trilogy when it comes to integrity, depiction, vision and accomplishment. To put it in “Lucky” Jack Aubrey's seafaring terminology of a ship that has the upper hand in battle, this one has “the weather-gauge.” A modern classic that thoroughly deserves to be savoured time and time again.

    Now, about those sequels ...