Master And Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) – movie review

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Movie Review by Mark Bayross

Starring: Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, Billy Boyd, James D’Arcy, Lee Ingleby, George Innes

Director: Peter Weir

With Hollywood’s revived interest in all things historical – and no doubt an eye on the handsome takings of this summer’s “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN – now is probably a good time for a two-hour-plus naval epic set during the Napoleonic War.

Based on Patrick O’Brian’s 20 volume series, MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD brings to the screen the adventures of ‘Lucky’ Jack Aubrey, Captain of the warship HMS Surprise and his best friend Dr. Stephen Maturin, the ship’s surgeon, in a plot loosely based around the tenth book, ‘The Far Side Of The World’.

Ten years in the making, the film reunites Russell Crowe with his A BEAUTIFUL MIND co-star Paul Bettany in the roles of Aubrey and Maturin respectively. The story is quite straightforward -the Surprise is attacked off the coast of Brazil by the Acheron, a French warship of superior firepower, and Aubrey, driven by duty and then a mixture of revenge and pride, chases it around Cape Horn and on to a final, decisive confrontation.

Along the way, we are given an intimate portrayal of life on a Royal Navy warship circa 1805 in fascinating detail: the claustrophobia of life below deck; the heat and confusion of battle; and the relationship between the ranks. The extent to which this film has been researched is evident not just in these details, but also in the fact that the source material uncovers a number of revelations about this life, such as the fact that some Midshipmen were as young as their early teens.

But at the heart of the story is the relationship between Captain Aubrey and his faithful friend Maturin. While the Aubrey is a boisterous, impulsive and exuberant warrior, Maturin is quieter, a modern man of nature, wide-eyed at living in a time of scientific discovery. Both are men of strength and resolve, commanding respect and unwavering loyalty from the crew, and matching each other for stubbornness.

As Aubrey pushes harder to capture his mysterious foe (you never actually see the Acheron close up until the climatic battle, giving it a sinister quality similar to the truck in DUEL), he risks the lives of his crew and tensions mount between him and Maturin. Things come to a head when they reach the Galapagos Islands – the only time the film sets foot on dry land – as the man of action and the man of science clash.

The direction from Peter Weir (THE TRUMAN SHOW, GREEN CARD, DEAD POETS’ SOCIETY) is immaculate, capturing the awesome beauty and power of the sea, while the performances are superb all round. Crowe is magnificent, coming close to his incredible performance in THE INSIDER, capturing Aubrey’s imposing authority and the touching sense of paternal pride he has in his crew, while Bettany portrays the mixture of affection and frustration of a long, close friendship under difficult circumstances.

The supporting cast create a wealth of engaging characters, from Max Pirkis’ young, brave Midshipman to David Threlfall’s amusingly acerbic Steward – clearly the time spent off-set galvanised these men into an extended family unit and this sense of comradeship really translates onto the screen.

I have to admit I wasn’t particularly enthralled by the idea of spending over two hours stuck on a ship with Russell Crowe, but I was pleasantly surprised by MASTER AND COMMANDER – the time just flew by. As a piece of filmmaking, it is undeniably impressive – the atmosphere of the vast open sea is stunning and this is the only film to have ever been shot on the Galapagos Islands -and amazingly, what is essentially a very thin story is carried off with aplomb.

A wonderful mixture of spectacle and entertainment.

5 out of 6 stars