Australian actor soars in exciting sea saga
An aura of bombastic pomp and circumstance looms in advance hoopla over Master and Commander: Far Side of the World. But the movie itself turns out to be surprisingly understated and all the more powerful for it.
Peter Weir’s film adaptation of Patrick O’Brian’s celebrated naval-historical fiction is not without bombast or occasional moments of very British pomp. How could it be otherwise in an adventure tale set mostly onboard a British warship circa 1805? Weir and company succeed here with a very skillful combination of character study and epic adventure.
There are spectacular battle scenes at the start and finish, but in between Master and Commander is particularly concerned with the inner workings of a 19th-century British naval vessel, the man o’ war HMS Surprise in this case. Part of these “inner workings” are the relationships among the crew of the Surprise, and foremost among those is the complicated friendship between the ship’s commander, “Lucky Jack” Aubrey (Russell Crowe), and the ship’s doctor, Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany).
The spectacular battle sequence that opens the film raises the dramatic temperature straightaway, but it also draws us most effectively into those “inner workings.” Aubrey speaks of the ship as a piece of England, and the film dramatizes that idea through its lavishly detailed portrayal of the ship and its crew as a working community battling its way through a series of high-risk situations.
Crowe’s performance is one of his best, a robust mixture of edgy swagger and rueful intelligence, and everything he does is made richer by the interplay of Aubrey and Maturin. As he was in A Beautiful Mind, Bettany is a good foil for Crowe, but much depends on the dynamics of their nonchalantly intellectual banter, their violin-cello duets and their highly-developed but not always compatible moral seriousness.
The teeming crowd of supporting players is loaded with distinctive characters who appear briefly and infrequently but still leave, collectively, a charmingly diverse range of strong impressions. A boy midshipman who loses his arm (Max Pirkis), an old salty and dubious prophet (George Innes), the failed officer Hollum (Lee Inglesby) and the blustery ship’s master (Robert Pugh) are particularly impressive.
The thing might be a thinking-man’s revision of an old Errol Flynn swashbuckler but with a gritty, meticulous latter-day realism added to the mix. And Aubrey’s obsessive pursuit of the “phantom” enemy ship (American in the book but French in the film) dabbles in the unlikely recycling of Moby Dick and Red River, but Aubrey’s vendetta against the Acheron is only a rather flimsy McGuffin, a pretext for bombardments that might matter more in a film less scintillatingly immersed in the little, old world contained in Lucky Jack’s big old boat.