Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Directed by Peter Weir. Starring Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, Billy Boyd, James D’Arcy, Edward Woodall, Chris Larkin, Robert Pugh. (2003, PG-13, 139 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Nov. 14, 2003
As Capt. Lucky Jack Aubrey, commander of the British naval vessel HMS Surprise, which stalks the French warship Acheron 'round Cape Horn in 1805, Russell Crowe has finally found a role he can sink his teeth into with as much testosterone gusto as he did with his early career high-point Romper Stomper. Like that film’s vicious skinhead Hando, Crowe inhabits the role of Lucky Jack fully, and while the two characters couldn’t be more different, Crowe’s metamorphosis into each one is something to see. Based on Patrick O’Brian’s series of historical novels, which take place during the Napoleonic wars, when France, not England, ruled the seas, Master and Commander may seem at first an odd choice for director Weir, whose earlier years were spent helming character-driven narratives that bordered on the metaphysical – Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave, and even Gallipoli – before breaking out with 1989’s Dead Poets Society. Master and Commander, while very much a rollicking and explosive chronicle of one long naval battle and all of which that implies, retains Weir’s fascination with humans under extreme conditions. It’s a pressure cooker at sea, and to his credit, Crowe, as the single-minded captain both tough and fair, makes it all come together through sheer dint of persona. With his stocky, muscular frame clad (for the most part) in a soaking wet uniform with epaulets that, let’s face it, have seen better days, and a grim and tight-lipped smile stretched forever across his face, he looks like a shark, cunning and intractable. Master and Commander takes him and his crew – including his ship’s doctor and resident naturalist Dr. Maturin (Bettany) and young coxswain Barrett Bonden (Boyd) – on a voyage of vendetta around the coast of Brazil after the Acheron causes serious damage to the Surprise and forces them to drop the pursuit while repairs are made. The key military problem here is that the French ship, with its 44 heavy cannons, outguns the Surprise, and even worse, as Lucky Jack soon discovers, the Acheron has a special double hull which renders the Surprise’s own guns ineffective at all but the closest range. That means, of course, that Jack will have to maneuver his vessel perilously close to inflict the kind of damage he means to. (Fans of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan will likely experience déjà vu during many of the film’s battle sequences.) There’s more to Master and Commander than just cannon fire and fodder, however. When not shooting holes in ships, Weir focuses on the details of an 18th-century life at sea, where below-deck triage means amputating young boys’ arms without benefit of anesthesia, as happens (frequently) to Dr. Maturin, followed by a string-instrument duet in the captain’s quarters between Maturin and Aubrey. Weir’s film captures the essential conundrum of sea life, mainly that it’s an intensely claustrophobic affair set against the most open and unprepossessing areas on the planet. A humanistic adventure film that’s both rich with characterization and concussive cannon bursts, Master and Commander is, surprisingly, some of the best work either Crowe or Weir have ever done.