Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Two of the late Patrick O’Brian’s 20 popular seafaring novels have been adapted into a bracing, blustery tale of comradeship, courage, leadership, loyalty, oceanic hunts, pitched battles and an upper-deck surgery in which an English coin doubles as a protective metal plate for a wounded seaman’s exposed brains.
The titles and content of the first and 10th volumes have been combined with elements of the series in general into Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. This high-seas adventure set in 1805 during the Napoleonic wars makes two stops at the Galápagos Islands to give us landlubbers a chance to stretch our legs on dry land, in a story set otherwise within “the little wooden world” of the 28-gun HMS (His Majesty’s Ship) Surprise.
The film splashes and briskly sails over the screen in rich nautical detail, as the friendship of British Capt. Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) and ship’s physician Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany) and the mettle of their fellow crewmen are tested, when they attempt to intercept and sink the French privateer warship Acheron. Their nearly epic mission takes them along the fog-shrouded coast of Brazil, around storm-battered Cape Horn and into the doldrums of South Pacific waters where “Lucky” Jack jockeys his 127-mate frigate into confrontation with a vessel of superior construct and firepower.
Director and co-writer Peter Weir (The Year of Living Dangerously, The Truman Show and Witness) and star Crowe have seven previous Oscar nominations (one award) between them. Master and Commander seems certain to up that number. Weir and his talented crew credibly re-create what life in the British navy might have looked like. Crowe and an excellent supporting cast allow us to feel what it is like to live for months aboard a floating planet of sorts on which daily routine is sometimes jarred by sudden challenges and danger. This two-hour spectacle of historical realism, in which discipline is touted as being as valuable as courage and in which extra rations of grog substitute for medals of honor, may not be a complete dramatic success (the philosophical differences and duty-vs.-friendship conflicts between Aubrey and Maturin feel a little thin). However, the film comes so credibly to life that at times it feels as though thick mixtures of sea air and spent gunpowder are wafting through the theater.
Crowe makes a charismatic captain. Here, the man who played an intense rogue cop in L.A. Confidential and a troubled whistle-blower in The Insider is convincing as the master strategist and man of great pride who has a deep love for both country and mankind. Crowe, who is part-time guitarist and singer for 30 Odd Foot of Grunts, has a keen ear for the rhythms of effective dialogue and knows just when to let expressions alone do his talking. Here he comes across as being both very, very human and heroic.
Bettany, who played Crowe’s roommate in A Beautiful Mind, plays Maturin as the voice of conscience and scientific wonder in a world that seems at lunatic odds with itself. He is just as much a visionary as his military-minded buddy, and, as a prolific naturalist, he sees beyond the moment and into a world that has yet to unveil itself fully or to be discovered and nurtured by the human race. It may disappoint O’Brian fans that the character’s duplicity as a secret agent is not even hinted at here, but Bettany himself is a success as the physician who, at one point, must take scalpel in hand and literally heal himself.
The heat of battle and carnage is robustly portrayed and is contrasted, to fascinating effect, with the quieter moments in which Aubrey and Maturin drag out their violin and cello to lure the spirits of Mozart and Bach into their fold. An old man has “Hold Fast” tattooed on his knuckles and mumbles constantly about the Acheron being a “phantom” ship. A young midshipman braves the most disturbing field amputation since Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil. And the flora and fauna of the Galapagos (where an insect disguises itself for attack, thus providing fuel for future thought) are thrilling, as is a Cape Horn storm (a seamless blend of actual storm footage and digital effects).
Master and Commander is a film in which men are not always the people they may want to be and in which the life of one person sometimes must be sacrificed for the lives of many. It asks, “At what cost victory?” It also provides us with a hero who may be driven just as much by pride as by duty at times. He seems to know the limits of man but also is not afraid to challenge them. “I can harness the wind,” he says, “but I cannot create it.” But you are also left with the feeling that, given the opportunity, he certainly would try.