Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is refreshingly, and wonderfully, old-fashioned. Russell Crowe fills the screen, but not too much, in director Peter Weir’s big, lush, historically detailed yarn based on novelist Patrick O’Brian’s well-respected series that chronicles the British Navy during the Napoleonic wars. While the film’s action is based mostly on the tenth volume, The Far Side of the World, its spirit is drawn from the characters first introduced in Master and Commander.
Crowe plays Capt. Jack "Lucky" Aubrey; Paul Bettany is the ship’s doctor and Aubrey’s friend, Stephen Maturin. While the actors are fine in their roles, they’re only as admirable as Weir’s gorgeous seascapes, booming battle scenes, topsy-turvy storms and exotic locales. The frigate HMS Surprise is equally majestic, being the main setting of this classy, classic adventure, which is set in 1805 and takes its sailor warriors all the way from the coast of Brazil to the Galapagos Islands – the real ones.
Crowe portrays his most likable character yet. Not overly noble, stoic, grandiose or ornery as he has been in Gladiator or A Beautiful Mind (in which he also shared the screen with Bettany), Crowe shades the captain with fine-tuned subtleties. He’s brave in battle and tough with his men, sometimes extraordinarily so. To set a proper example, he flogs one subordinate for simply for failing to salute. On another occasion, he assails a midshipman for displaying indecision. Aubrey remains strong, even when he faces the first dramatic defeats of his successful naval career in his singular mission to destroy the enemy French ship, the Acheron.
The military goal pretty much constitutes the extent of the film’s plot and that works just fine. At the outset, the Acheron, a bigger, stronger vessel with a larger crew, attacks the Surprise in a particularly one-sided battle. But in unconventional action, instead of going home to repair and restock his ship, Aubrey directs the crew to restore the frigate while at sea. Still, Aubrey isn’t wholly unreasonable. He delights in the company of his senior officers, inviting them to jovial meals in his private quarters and paying distinct attention to he crew’s younger members, most specifically an able, articulate boy, Lord Blakeney (Max Perkis), who lost his father, one of Aubrey’s former colleagues.
The ship’s widely varied population, from the privileged, educated officers down to gunners residing below the deck, is vividly shown, even though the folks at central casting selected a crew that could look a little more like scruffy 19th-century seafarers and less like gleaming Los Angeles extras. Weir and co-screenwriter John Collee, however, take great pains to make the dialogue appropriately formal. The men, perpetually addressing each other as "mister" and "sir," happily don’t sound like anyone from the 21st century.
Weir and Collee reveal Aubrey’s humanity most in the friendship between the impetuous captain and his bookish old pal, which gives the film its appealing emotional center. Behind closed doors, Jack and Steven clearly enjoy each other’s company, getting together to play rousing cello and violin duets. Aubrey even goes so far as to entertain criticism from his pal when Maturin questions his decisions. At the same time, the captain indulges the doctor’s obsession with natural history, agreeing to make island stops so Maturin can collect valuable wildlife specimens. (The visit to the Galapagos showcases those famed tortoises, whose heads look eerily like E.T.)
Folks who aren’t experts in nautical history aren’t likely to find fault with the film’s meticulous attention to detail. Particularly fascinating are the medical scenes, which aren’t too gruesome, but do show how a shipboard amputation or a brain surgery was handled 200 years ago. The period of inaction is handled with delicacy, too. Even when the sailors aren’t immediately faced with the prospect of battle, they’re subject to the whims of nature, and long stretches without wind and water make life for the crew just about as impossible as being under attack.
Nicely balanced, Master and Commander successfully mixes action, adventure and history with characters that are succinctly, competently developed. There’s something for everybody, even for those who’ll go just to see Crowe in that white ruffled shirt.
– Leslie Katz