Rare proof that a gigantic production in contemporary Hollywood can possess a distinctive personality and its own approach to storytelling, “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” proves as bracing as a stiff wind on the open sea. Peter Weir’s physically imposing epic fashions a world of its own as it creates a rich and vivid picture of what it must have been like to sail with the British fleet 200 years ago. It’s thoroughly satisfying as an atypical adventure tale studded with unusual detailing and diverting sidelights.
Adapted from two of the late Patrick O’Brian’s series of 20 seafaring novels featuring Captain Jack Aubrey and his close friend Dr. Stephen Maturin, this Fox release can expect a brawny bow on the basis of Russell Crowe toplining in an action-oriented attraction, fine reviews and, it cannot be denied, residual interest from fans of “Pirates of the Caribbean,” a film with which this one thankfully has nothing in common other than rigging, cannons and swords. But partners Fox, Miramax and Universal are no doubt counting heavily on year-end awards recognition to put this serious-minded but engagingly accessible $150 million-plus venture into safe waters financially.
Throughout his career, Weir has displayed a great knack for delineating self-contained environments in his films, from “Picnic at Hanging Rock” and “Gallipoli” on through to “Witness,” “The Mosquito Coast,” “Dead Poets Society” and “The Truman Show.” Working on by far the grandest canvas he’s ever used has not diminished this talent in the slightest; in fact, being confined almost exclusively to a vintage three-master might even have further focused it. Other than for two stops at the Galapagos, the picture is set entirely on board the HMS Surprise, a 28-gun warship, and is intently devoted to portraying life above and below deck during a period of months in 1805.
After concisely setting the scene with the information that Captain Aubrey (Crowe) is under orders to prevent the Acheron, a significantly larger French ship, from taking Napoleon’s war into the Pacific (how or why a solitary vessel would meaningfully do this remains an unanswered question), pic opens with a haunting prelude to a surprise attack. With the Surprise cruising along the Eastern coast of Brazil, night gives way to day via wonderful images of a fog-enshrouded ship dominated by the sounds of creaking wood being buffeted about by slopping water. A junior officer on the night watch thinks he sees something peek-a-booing through the mists but isn’t sure what to do. Suddenly, the cottony fog clouds brighten with terrifying bursts of color and the Surprise receives a big surprise of its own, as it’s fired upon by the Acheron.
Its hull blasted into explosions of flying splinters, a mast wrecked and the rudder ruined, the Surprise is left drifting, a sitting duck for the approaching French ship. But by quickly drawing upon his intelligence and store of naval experience dating back 20 years to youthful service under Lord Nelson, Aubrey comes up with the one possible means of escape, which will buy him time to repair his vessel before resuming the pursuit.
Opening this way doesn’t merely provide the audience with the desired action jump-start. Weir and co-scripter John Collee, a Scottish physician turned novelist and dramatist, use the initial skirmish to establish the central conflict, assert the resourcefulness of the central character and the respect he commands from his crew and lay out the basic contours of shipboard life. (Script draws character and introductory material from O’Brian’s first Aubrey novel, “Master and Commander,” but takes more of its narrative thrust from the 10th series entry, “The Far Side of the World.”)
Just as the crew of the Surprise can be pleased to be serving such an able captain, so can the viewer be delighted to be in the company of such a fine character as Aubrey. Bestowed by Crowe with a physical confidence and a straightforward belief in himself, Aubrey is a man who makes everyone around him feel that they’re in good hands. Unburdened by hubris or modernistic neuroses, demanding but not cruel, Aubrey stirs doubt among his men only by his decision to press on despite the three-week jump the Acheron now has on them rather than return home.
As the Surprise sets sail once again after repairs are made and supplies taken on at a small Brazilian port (an occasion that allows for the appearance of the only woman in the cast, for just a few seconds), it begins to become apparent that many screen sea-saga conventions, from Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn to Burt Lancaster and Johnny Depp, are to be tossed overboard: There will be no evil captain, no pirates, no kidnapped damsel, no mutiny. There is in short no melodrama, just drama, which rights the ship of the genre, so to speak, reinvigorating and refreshing it at a stroke.
To chase the Acheron into the Pacific, the Surprise must make the treacherous trip around Cape Horn, a voyage that 40 years ago occasioned one of the screen’s best storm-at-sea sequences in “Mutiny on the Bounty.” The present one, unsurprisingly, surpasses it, putting to shame the phoniness of the digital work in “The Perfect Storm” via its seamless combination of full-scale tank work (accomplished at the Baja studio that was home to “Titanic”), models and CGI. On a first viewing, at least, it is impossible to tell where reality leaves off and visual effects begin.
In the wake of a heartbreaking loss of life during the storm, Aubrey is provoked to reveal something of his absolutist side to his best friend Maturin (Paul Bettany), the Irish ship’s surgeon who has long accompanied Aubrey on his campaigns. Through this character, appealingly underplayed by Bettany, and his nicely drawn relationship with Aubrey, numerous aspects of turn-of-the-19th-century life are evoked. Medical practices at the time are spotlighted with special — sometimes grisly, sometimes humorous — attention, as when a very mature 13-year-old midshipman (the immoderately good-looking Max Pirkis) must have an arm amputated, or when Maturin places a coin in a man’s skull to patch it up.
Aubrey’s call to duty by the grace of God stands in contrast to Maturin’s compulsion to do scientific research on the Galapagos, and the resultant mild conflict represents an embryonic precursor to the schism that would break open in the wake of Darwin’s postulations more than half-a-century later.
The Aubrey-Maturin bond also provides the cue to the film’s singular musical approach. For recreation, the two play violin-cello duets of Mozart and Bach. From there, the score inventively incorporates the work of more recent composers with that of the modern Australian team of Iva Davies, Richard Tognetti and Christopher Gordon, which introduces significant percussive and synthesizer effects. Against the odds, this combination of diverse elements coalesces and bridges the gap between authentic period sounds and contemporary excitement.
With the story unfolding like chapters in a book rather than in typical movie style, an initial stop at the Galapagos is cut short when the crew encounters survivors of an attack by the Acheron. Troublesome episodes follow: doldrums during intense heat, the flogging of an insubordinate sailor, the suicide of an insecure midshipman, the reckless accidental shooting of Maturin and the latter being forced to save his own life by operating on himself.
A second sojourn on the Galapagos provides a more extensive opportunity to glimpse this fascinating setting (which, according to Fox, has never before been used in a theatrical feature film). But just when it appears that the film might be relaxing into a stretch of touristic R&R, a stunning apparition triggers a return to sea and the astonishing deception that enables the Surprise to live up to its name and take on the Acheron in a climactic full-blown sea battle.
Weir meets all the assorted tall challenges that such a project poses, meshing his sensitivity to character, story, theme and historical authenticity with a technical prowess that makes “Master and Commander” feel fully realized. Inspired by the O’Brian novels, which are regarded as unsurpassed in the historical fiction field for their depth of research and accuracy, the film’s attention to detail is exceptional, ever-present but never brandished for its own sake.
Production designer William Sandell, costume designer Wendy Stites, lenser Russell Boyd and the visual effects aces are due major accolades, but the credit certainly extends deeply into the huge teams responsible for the particulars of the ship, stunts, weapons, hair, speech and sound. Weir and editor Lee Smith must be especially commended for making the film breeze along at a breathless clip without ever unnaturally forcing the pace.
Standing on the captain’s deck above it all is Crowe, who looks dashing in his long blonded locks but also carries a goodly portion of the bulk that characterized Aubrey in the novels. Crowe invests the captain with authority, hearty humor, civilized instincts, craftiness and the unmistakable sense of good fortune that backs up his character’s nickname of “Lucky Jack.”
This may not be Crowe’s most challenging role from a psychological or emotional point of view, but very few actors can so convincingly convey a man of such complete mental and physical ability. The part demands that, and Crowe delivers it in a picture on which a superior director judiciously uses modern technology and the eminence he’s steadily earned over a career to triumph over the constraints of conventional thinking in the narrowly defined world of modern megabuck filmmaking.