Russell Crowe might be a bit of a jerk, but he's
a fine actor who might just receive another Oscar nomination
for 'Master and Commander.'
and Commander: The Far Side of the World”
20th Century Fox
Directed by Peter Weir
Screenplay by Peter Weir and John Collee, based on the novels
by Patrick O’Brian
Produced by Samuel Goldwyn Jr., Peter Weir and Duncan Henderson
Starring Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, Billy Boyd, James
D’Arcy, Lee Ingleby, George Innes, Mark Lewis Jones, Chris
Larkin, Richard McCabe, Robert Pugh, David Threlfall, Max Pirkis,
Edward Woodall, Ian Mercer and Max Benitz
(out of four)
In the middle of the ocean,
a warship can be a victim of nature or an open target—or it
can harness the wind to be a dangerous predator. It depends not
just on strategy, but also on the unpredictable weather. Peter Weir’s
“Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” is
one of those rare films that immerses us in its environment—that
of an early 19th-century British naval ship during Napoleonic wartime.
The details of life in confined quarters join with strategy and
personal turmoil to create a piece that’s much more intellectually
engaging than the average action film. From the pre-pubescent boys
working as sailors to the requirement for fast action in unclear
circumstances, the film unveils the disturbing challenges of such
The story comes from the first of Patrick O’Brian’s
historic novels about Captain “Lucky” Jack Aubrey of
the British Navy, whom Russell Crowe plays in his latest soon-to
be-Oscar-nominated role. Paul Bettany is even more impressive than
Crowe as Dr. Stephen Maturin, Jack’s best friend and, as the
ship’s surgeon who’s separate from the crew, the only
person who can criticize Jack without seeming mutinous. When he
tells Jack that he’s gone too far on his mission, it’s
not the cry of a treasonous naysayer against a flawless leader,
but a legitimate issue.
As a doctor and naturalist, Stephen’s appetite for exploration
grows when the ship ends up in the Galapagos Islands. Bettany lights
up as his character sees the possibility to discover a plethora
of new species, but also reaches a conflict with Jack as the urge
to explore outweighs the urge to fight.
The most interesting thing about the relationship of the two men
is that they have real discussions and arguments. Stephen doesn’t
simply make Jack see the light. And while Jack might disagree and
object at the time, he still takes his friend’s words into
There are also some humanizing dinner-table conversations as Jack
shares his experiences with the much-admired Admiral Nelson. These
scenes—as well as those in which Jack and Stephen play violin
and cello duets—come a bit out of place in what one would
expect to be non-stop war stress (the officers might want to think
more about survival than hero worship), but they also show a moment
of rest from the stressful situation.
The ship is off the coast of Brazil on a mission to keep a French
privateer vessel from “bringing war” to South American
British colonies. Tracking and stalking the ship proves difficult,
however, as it’s an unusually strong ship with a captain whose
wit comes unusually close to Jack’s.
With the exception of a few point-of-view shots from the opponent’s
telescope, the film exists solely with the crew, letting us know
only what they know and, in doing so, demonstrating how difficult
the decision-making process can be out in the middle of the ocean
with no means of communication.
The film’s battle scenes are its greatest asset. The opening
sequence, while the ship is surrounded by fog, is the strongest.
Scanning the sea, an outline appears, then disappears when the watchman
turns back to it. Was something really there? Was it, in fact, a
In these scenes, “Master and Commander” resembles Wolfgang
Peterson’s World War II German submarine epic “Das Boot,”
albeit with a bit more stagy drama thrown in the surrounding material.
Some moments simply show the crew as the ship sails away or stays
still, waiting to find out if they’ll survive.
Other scenes find tension in the clever game of cat and mouse Jack
plays with his counterpart, as both sides try to be the cat, but
one ultimately outwits the other. In addition to being well-done,
these scenes have a lasting effect on the drama as well, as a superstitious
crew adapts belief of cursed sailor or a devil ship. Stephen dismisses
such things, but Jack’s past as a sailor has caused him not
to disregard superstition so easily.
The excellent sound design, which covers every crack and strain
in the ship, also recalls “Das Boot.” Beneath the fascinating
surface of each scene is an elaborate set of sounds on the ship
that completes the experience.
Weir, whose credits include “Galipoli” and “The
Truman Show,” combines his visual and dramatic skills to make
a thorough experience into a world that cinema rarely visits.