- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 13, 2003

It is now the season in the movie year for historical spectacle. With all due respect to the potential that awaits in “The Last Samurai,” “Cold Mountain” and “The Return of the King” (the final chapter of the “Lord of the Rings” epic), director Peter Weir has set the bar very high with the new seafaring classic of the Napoleonic Wars, “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.”

I have never seen a more stirring and accomplished movie about this period of naval rivalry and combat. I doubt if the period or the subject matter could be depicted more evocatively or enjoyably.

This illusion was not purchased on the cheap: “Master and Commander” cost a cool $135 million, utilizing the new studio facilities that 20th Century Fox built near Ensenada, Mexico, to accommodate the requirements of James Cameron’s “Titanic.”

Borrowing a title only from the first book in a popular and esteemed cycle of 20 adventure novels by the late Patrick O’Brian, “Master and Commander” skillfully distills its plot from the 10th volume, “The Far Side of the World.” The film transports us promptly and vividly to the confines of a Royal Navy frigate, HMS Surprise, already on duty off the coast of Brazil in 1805. Orders are to hunt an elusive French raider, the Acheron, which introduces itself with a ferocious broadside from the concealment of a fog bank.

The initial impressions have a curious affinity with Ridley Scott’s “Alien.” Mr. Weir and his colleagues insinuate us into the sleeping quarters of the ship, accumulating details of atmosphere and setting before introducing individual characters, who cover a distinctive range from able seamen to exceptionally young midshipmen to seasoned officers. In the Acheron they even face a kind of monster: a mirror-image warship that appears to have the Surprise overmatched in speed, design and firepower. The English sailors are on the defensive throughout the movie, obliged to compensate for the stealth and heft of a rival that can never be underestimated.

The extended cat-and-mouse pursuit of the Acheron is spearheaded by Russell Crowe’s redoubtable Capt. Jack Aubrey. His courage and resourcefulness are enhanced at key points by the contrasting temperament and outlook of his friend Dr. Stephen Maturin, played by Paul Bettany (Mr. Crowe’s imaginary companion in “A Beautiful Mind”). The ship’s physician, Maturin repairs several casualties of the Acheron’s first shocking attack. Their services will prove vital to later efforts.

As the resident skeptic and intellectual on board — a devoted naturalist, permitted a preview of the Galapagos Islands a generation before Charles Darwin arrived there — Maturin is also in a position to influence tactics. His body of knowledge undergirds some of Aubrey’s sheer daring, especially when the captain plans a final showdown with his adversary.

Mr. Crowe gets to rally the crew with a couple of admonitions that sound irresistible both in their own context — “Do you want to call Napoleon your king?” — and in ours, “Do you want to hear your children singing the Marseillaise?”

Although he has been on a fairly impressive winning streak since 1997, Mr. Crowe exudes more heroic fun in this movie than he ever has before.

The part seems to suit him physically, temperamentally, vocally, even sartorially.

It also helps that Aubrey’s leadership must be expressed in different ways to different officers and seamen. With Maturin, he shares a good-naturedly argumentative and musical friendship (they are chamber musicians, with the captain on violin and the doctor on cello). Such familiarity, however, will not do for such subordinates as the forlorn, overage midshipman Hollum (Lee Ingleby) or the aristocratic apprentice Lord Blakeney, a 13-year-old midshipman (beautifully embodied by Max Pirkis) who bears up quietly and manfully under all trials.

Between engagements with the Acheron, the movie revives a lot of familiar shipboard situations with a fresh emphasis and impact: a storm at sea, a flogging, a man overboard, dining with the captain, surgical emergencies, cannonades, hand-to-hand combat.

A sumptuous adventure thriller, “Master and Commander” ought to unite susceptibilities as diverse as those on the Surprise itself, bonding thrill-seekers and aesthetes. Peter Weir has been a superior director for the better part of a generation, but I can’t recall his artfulness ever being synchronized with such a jolly good show.


TITLE: “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”

RATING: PG-13 (Occasional profanity and graphic violence, within the context of simulated naval warfare; some gruesome illustrative details; fleeting comic vulgarity)

CREDITS: Directed by Peter Weir. Screenplay by Mr. Weir and John Collee, based on novels by Patrick O’Brian. Cinematography by Russell Boyd. Production design by William Sandell. Costume design by Wendy Stites. Visual effects supervisors: Stefen Fangmeier and Nathan McGuinness. Editing by Lee Smith. Music by Iva Davies, Christopher Gordon and Richard Tognetti

RUNNING TIME: 128 minutes


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