Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

on November 14, 2003 by Wade Major
An old-fashioned seafaring spectacle of the Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks variety, "Master and Commander"--which required the combined resources of 20th Century Fox, Universal and Miramax--hearkens back to an era when such films were expected to be thoughtful, even artistic. Indeed, it's the kind of picture that should be greeted with open arms by long-frustrated holiday filmgoers, worn and wearied of taking their blockbuster thrills and art-house intelligence in separate doses.

Directed with breathtaking virtuosity by Peter Weir and brilliantly acted by Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany, "Master and Commander" is adapted from two of the late Patrick O'Brian's 20 novels on the Napoleonic-era adventures of Royal Navy Captain James Aubrey (Crowe) and his trusted friend and voice of reason Dr. Stephen Maturin (Bettany). Though reportedly made at a whopping cost of $150 million (virtually all of which is on the screen), it's a more intimate picture than one might imagine, immersing audiences in the lives of early 19th-century seamen in much the same way that "Das Boot" pickled them into a World War II-era U-boat. The story is simple but time-honored--in 1805, off the coast of Brazil, Aubrey and the crew of the HMS Surprise engage in a game of nautical cat-and-mouse with Napoleon's larger, faster Acheron, which threatens to expand the broader war to the Pacific. With the exception of several eye-popping naval engagements, however, "Master and Commander" focuses less on its heroes' battles with the French than their battles against the elements and between one another. For Weir--no stranger to logistically difficult films set against exotic backdrops--it's simply another chance to do what he does best, finding profundity in a narrative that would appear to suggest little of the sort. While much of this is subtextual, a midstream trip to the Galapagos isles brings the conflict between Aubrey's warrior pragmatism and Maturin's naturalist humanism front and center, underscoring the principal dilemma of the modern world.

Audiences still warmed-up from the summer's pulpier swashbuckler, "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," will respond most warmly, as will fans of the Horatio Hornblower books and their many film and television descendents, including "Star Trek." In fact, it's not entirely far-fetched to describe Aubrey and Maturin's adventures in "Master and Commander" as being akin to those of Captain Kirk and Doctor McCoy without a Mr. Spock. It may also be no coincidence that the relationship appears to echo that of Weir and his writing partner, Scottish physician-turned-writer John Collee. But it is Weir's fearsome perfectionism as a director that ultimately brings the script to life with a level of authenticity and attention to detail that is all but unprecedented, evident even in such minutiae as the emulated look of hand-ground 19th century optics in spyglass point-of-view shots. The only letdown comes as the end titles roll and filmgoers discover that they are still on dry land. Starring Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, James D'Arcy, Edward Woodall, Chris Larkin, Max Pirkis, Jack Randall, Max Benitz, Lee Ingleby and Robert Pugh. Directed by Peter Weir. Written by Peter Weir & John Collee. Produced by Samuel Goldwyn Jr., Peter Weir and Duncan Henderson. A Fox release. Adventure. Rated PG-13 for intense battle sequences, related images and brief language. Running time: 138 min

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