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157 13 NOVEMBER 2003
'Master and Commander' Captures Hell of Naval Warfare
By Jeremy Mathews
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.'

“Master 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
Rated PG-13
(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 warfare.

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 consideration.

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 ship?

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.

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