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"An exuberant adaptation of the highly successful Aubrey/Maturin series."
"One of the most realistic sea faring movies to come about in recent memory."
"The film unravels like a long game of cat and mouse in which there is no clear winner."
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World  


Cast

Capt. Jack Aubrey: Russell Crowe
Dr. Stephen Maturin: Paul Bettany
Lord Blackeney: Max Pirkis
Barrett Bonden: Billy Boyd
Lt. Thomas Pullings: James D'Arcy
Mr. Hogg: Mark Lewis Jones
Marine Capt. Howard: Chris Larkin
Mr. Higgins: Richard McCabe
Review November 2003

"Master and Commander" is an exuberant adaptation of the highly successful Aubrey/Maturin series made popular by the late, great Patrick O'Brian. The series is comprised of 20 novels, all detailing the nautical adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey and his shipmate, Dr. Stephen Maturin. In this adaptation, combining the first and tenth installments, the two characters sail aboard the H.M.S. Surprise during the Napoleonic wars and engage in a battle of wits with a much larger, faster, and heavily armed French battle ship. Although the story is stripped to simplicity, the overall vision is handsomely detailed. Directed by three-time Academy Award nominee, Peter Weir, "Master and Commander" is a vibrant epic that clearly depicts what life was like in the British Royal Navy during the 18th Century.

In the middle of the Napoleonic era, the French have captured most of Europe and are intent on seizing England, the final piece of the puzzle. In an effort to protect England from an invading force, the British Navy is ordered to intercept and destroy French vessels before they near the shoreline. Among them, the H.M.S. Surprise, a small ship with 28 guns and 197 souls, receives the specific instructions: "Intercept French Privateer, Acheron?you will sink, burn, or take her a prize." Led by Lucky Jack Aubrey, the British ship finds its way down to the Brazilian coastline. Ironically, however, it is the Acheron that takes the Brits by surprise. Outmaneuvered and outgunned, the Surprise and crew take significant damage, including the destruction of their rudder and the loss of many men. Fortunately though, a heavy fog rolls in and they are able to hide and lick their wounds?for now.

Tending to the wounded is Dr. Stephen Maturin, a long time friend of Captain Aubrey. Maturin and Aubrey have a unique friendship, one that goes back a ways and is tested as much as the wooden constructs of their ship's hull. After chasing the phantom ship through the stormiest of seas, the Surprise comes across the evolutionary Galapagos Islands. As a naturalist, Maturin is instantly attracted to the exotic and foreign wonderland. And although he sees great opportunities to further mankind and medicine with new discoveries while also providing a respite for the weary, Aubrey's sense of duty and determination take over upon the sighting of the Acheron. Though outclassed, Aubrey feels he can outsmart the enemy. But will his obstinate ways get the better of him? Will his crew mutiny before they meet the Acheron? Can the H.M.S Surprise stand up to the Acheron at sea? And will his friendship and reputation survive after a broken promise?

"Master and Commander" is one of the most realistic sea faring movies to come about in recent memory. While watching the film, you get seasick, feeling as though you are imprisoned aboard the H.M.S. Surprise for two and a half hours. With every crash of the waves, every change of the wind, every creek of the spar deck, your stomach gets tighter and tighter. Going great lengths to maintain this realism and historical accuracy is director Peter Weir. Weir brought in sailing masters, brushed up on nautical lore and history, and utilized the terminology to perfection. He mirrored the H.M.S. Surprise off several ships: the H.M.S. Victory, Lord Nelson's ship in the Battle of Trafalgar; Captain Cook's infamous Endeavor; and the Rose, an 1800's Royal Navy replica used in British sailing school that Weir purchased for the film. The film covers everything from "powder monkeys" to nautical devices and even includes a journey to the Galapagos Islands (the first to be captured in a feature film) where Charles Darwin himself conducted research for studies on evolution and natural selection while aboard the H.M.S. Beagle in 1835. All of this attention to detail pays off effortlessly.

The corner stone of the film is the relationship between Captain Jack Aubrey and the ship's surgeon, Dr. Stephen Maturin. Both men are courageous in their own fields, but have different agendas. Aubrey is the obnoxious, but intelligent sea captain who substitutes personal priorities with duty and obligation, while Maturin is the reserved doctor and naturalist who adheres to reason and compassion. Throughout the film, the two are occasionally at odds, breaking promises, defying authority, and questioning motives. It's intriguing to watch, particularly since neither is able to stay mad enough to risk that bond of friendship. And it's this terrific dynamic that allows Patrick O'Brian to examine the gray matter between the bitterness of war and the benevolence of humanity. In sharp contrast, when all the dust settles, the two break out the cello and violin to make beautiful music.

The acting in the film is supplemental to the historical accuracy of the picture. To be expected, Russell Crowe turns in a very seafaring performance as Aubrey, a leader carved from the same mold as Ahab. Pony tail wagging, he is strong willed, knowledgeable, sympathetic, and even comedic at times. All of these qualities make it easy to see why he is a leader of men and why such officers as Midshipman Hollom struggle to earn the respect of the crew. But for Crowe, this role is nothing new. It's very similar to his macho role as Maximus in Ridley Scott's "Gladiator." Yet for me, the most impressive performance was from Paul Bettany as Dr. Maturin. Bettany is quickly becoming one of the most recognizable actors today. He portrays Dr. Maturin with such generosity, goodwill, and inquisitiveness that it's no wonder Aubrey keeps him as his confidante. Opposite Crowe for the second time, the two seem like old roomies destined to work through mathematical formulas or circumnavigate the world while sharing a bit of grog.

The major downside to the film, however, is that the story comes off as clunky as its title. "Master and Commander" represents the first book in the O'Brian series, where Captain Jack and Dr. Maturin are first introduced; however, the storyline is a loose adaptation of O'Brian's 10th book, "Far Side of the World." I say loose adaptation because the original storyline involves the H.M.S Surprise receiving orders to intercept an American frigate wreaking havoc on the British whale trade. Obviously, this is less cinematic, but the film begs the question: If Napoleon was attempting to invade England and conquer all of Europe, why would he have a powerful ship like the Acheron sailing around Cape Horn? And why would the British bother pursuing it, so far from their home shores? Even though I have not read any of the 20 books by O'Brian, I'm sure they are not as far fetched as what we get to see on screen. Overly simplistic and oftentimes lethargic, the film unravels like a long game of cat and mouse in which there is no clear winner - a shame for such a meticulous work.

"Master and Commander" is a grand depiction of life at sea during the Napoleonic era, capturing the spirit of Patrick O'Brian's world in visionary fashion. From the floggings to the food to the isolation to the interaction between shipmates, the film is as real as it gets. And the casting couldn't have been more accurate. Yet, the oversimplified story seems to disengage and dissatisfy. Sure, men go overboard, there are explosive battles and leaky galleys, and there is even a drenching chase sequence in a typhoon. It's enough to crack open the Dramamine. But in the end, you realize it's just another day stuck in a wooden boat chasing the sun.



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