Director: Peter Weir
Cast: Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, Billy Boyd, James D'Arcy, Lee Ingleby, David Threlfall, Max Pirkis
MPAA Rating: (for intense battle sequences, related images, and brief language)
Running Time: 2:18
Release Date: 11/14/03
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Review by Mark Dujsik
Peter Weir's Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is a grand, intimate epic of warfare at sea. It is alive with the blood, sweat, and tears of seafaring men in the midst of an endless pursuit. The film breathes with the scale and life of a great novel; scenes exist not only to be experienced but also to be interpreted. The feeling only stands to reason, considering the fact that the film is based on two installments (I learn the first and tenth) of an extended series of twenty novels by Patrick O'Brian. The story picks up right in the middle of a voyage, meaning we are plunged straight into the center of the tale, and the characters are well into routine and common existence aboard the ship. The characters exist as they are, and we learn about them from observation of their lives and their growth. Even though the film is about a battlefield of war, it is more of a study of men in close quarters for long periods of time and the effect such a lifestyle has on them. Instead of setting up generic characters who exist solely to take part in a succession of action sequences, screenwriters Weir and John Collee let us into this world where war is the natural state even when there's no battle to be had.
The year is 1805, and the Napoleonic Wars have spread far beyond Europe. Off the coast of Brazil, the H.M.S. Surprise is hunting the French privateer Acheron and either destroy or commandeer it. In command of the Surprise is Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), nicknamed "Lucky Jack" by his crew for his past exploits, including adventures with Lord Nelson. His close friend on the voyage is the ship's surgeon Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), a man of study as contrasted with Aubrey's man of action. Late in the night, a boy on watch spots a shadowed figure in the fog and calls the ship to attention. As it turns out, the silhouette belongs to the Acheron, a far superior ship in terms of crew numbers, artillery, and structure, and the ambush leaves the Surprise seriously damaged. After efforts are made to repair the ship to a sailable capability, Aubrey decides to go forth with his orders to find the Acheron despite the deaths and injuries sustained by the crew and the odds set against their favor. The decision slowly brings the crew to the brink of sanity and severely tests the friendship between Aubrey and Maturin.
Weir and Collee's script focuses entirely on the nature of men at sea and the situations that arise from that way of life, whether it be strategizing the best defense or succumbing to intense psychological distress. There are harrowing scenes as the crew members take on risky duties without question, such as one moment when one seaman sets up a decoy stern of the Surprise while under cannon fire from the enemy in the pitch dark of night. While the film contains only two battle sequences, the aftermath of the first is notably wrenching. Working with early nineteenth century medical practices and aboard an army vessel removed from most civilization, Maturin must make the painful but necessary decision to amputate the arm of a young boy in one gruesome scene and show off his abilities as he removes a bullet from the skull of another with a coin on the deck where the light is the best. It prepares us for a later scene when Maturin is forced to perform self-surgery to remove a bullet from his abdomen. That scene comes as a result of an accident aboard the ship as the men slowly begin to lose their grip on reality.
As that happens, Aubrey seems to also be losing control over his men. The atmosphere of unrest with command is established in only one brief moment when a single crewman questions Aubrey's orders, but it takes us aback since such an exchange has never happened before that. That's the beauty of this screenplay, which keeps the proceedings simple enough that small things like this make an impact. It also means that the more prominent events take on even more meaning. There's an episode in which the crew believes that one man is cursed and responsible for the hard times falling on the ship, and the aftereffects of the man's final decision are haunting as fortune begins to shine upon the ship immediately after. The battle scenes themselves, of course, have a similar intimacy and accomplishment. The opening one is of particular note for its technical elements. The sound of the opening is quiet—the calm before the storm—and then all hell breaks loose. The action is shot at low angles and close-ups to give us a sense of claustrophobia, and there's one shot of Aubrey's view through his telescope as he's actually able to see the French captain looking at him.
The rest of the film is equally technically proficient, including seamless and wholly believable special effects. All of this work would mean relatively little if not for the strong thematic strings Weir and Collee have weaved throughout the story. For example, in the final battle, which moves from a firefight to the storming of the ship, Weir manages to simultaneously rouse our loyalty to and admiration for the heroes and to communicate the horrors of war. A trip to the Galapagos Islands (which notably exists only because it develops Maturin's hobby as a naturalist) not only opens up the film with its panoramic views of a natural landmark but also underscores the theme of adapting to one's environment, which is essentially the journey taken by the ship's youngest crew members. The central motif of the film, though, is the relationship between Aubrey and Maturin. It's a relationship of comfort and respect, where the two take time away from the stress of the daily routine to play music in the captain's quarters. As tensions mount between them, their fight is both a battle of wills and a heartbreaking separation.The two performances at the heart of this duo are incredibly strong. Russell Crowe gives a stirring performance as a born leader with a heart, both of which we see in every moment of his performance, and Paul Bettany stands tall as the intelligent voice of reason. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World ends on a fairly open-ended note, but it is just the right one. In it, Weir finds a commentary on the absurd and circular nature of war and hits one last reverberation of Aubrey's nature, begging one to ask, is it dedication or folly?
Copyright © 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.