Finally, an adventure film for grownups. MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD, based on the wildly popular Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’ Brian, is brought to vivid life with a literate script, intelligent performances, and a respect for its audience.
While the story takes place during the Napoleanic Wars, the focus is on the characters who man a British warship sailing the seas to pick off French battleships. Sure, there are battles complete with cannons, swordplay and firearms, but the action is true to the time. Things do not blow up real good for the sake of pyrotechnics, there is no rock soundtrack, and the direction by Peter Weir eschews the sort of flashy editing designed more to sell the soundtrack than to advance the action.
Our hero is Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), known at Lucky Jack to his loyal crew. He’s stalwart, brave, and can make decisive life and death decisions with the proper amount of manly angst to show that he doesn’t do so lightly. He’s also tough, through storms, doldrums, battles, putative curses and unforgivable puns, even taking a projectile to the throat in the opening battle sequence and barely missing a beat as he continues fighting. The projectile is removed by ship’s surgeon Stephen Maturin, a scholarly type who’s on board as much to pursue his naturalist hobby as to aid the boys for fight for king and country. A remote island teeming with new species is to Aubrey like Christmas, New Year’s and a month of birthdays all rolled into one.
Their friendship is the heart of the story. Not natural companions, one a man of action, the other a man of letters, but thrown together in the close quarters that are the good ship Surprise, their mutual admiration and love of music helps. It also helps that Aubrey is a little on the brainy side himself and that Maturin has a courageous streak that pops up when needed. Their sometimes rocky relationship is always interesting. Maturin has a habit of telling Aubrey what he needs to hear whether he likes it or not. He also has a habit of falling into a snit when the exigencies of war prevent him from collecting flora and fauna from far flung islands, including the Galapagos (where some locations shots were filmed adding to the versimilitude). The rest of the crew is equally fleshed out, with rich little boys, as in pre-teen, who are serving officers, midshipmen with self-esteem issues, and the Captains cook whose first priority is saving the Captain’s silver when the ship comes under fire.
The Aubrey-Maturin novels are known for being meticulous in their historical accuracy. Thus, being true to that spirit, this is not a glamorous world we see. The battles are nasty, brutish and not short enough. The crews quarters are dark, dank, cramped and rendered so that we can practically smell the fetid air. The medicine that Maturin practices is grisly, though we are spared the direct sight of amputations and such. Such spectacles are just out of camera range leaving only our imaginations and the unwholesome gurgly sound effects to complete the picture. Yet, like the novels, such details become objects of fascination, up to and including an impromptu brain surgery in which a coin is used as a metal plate to mend a damaged cranium. Even small details are as authentic as we in the 21st century can stomach, hence no dazzling white teeth, no careful manicures, and certainly no fetching hair styles. The dialogue, too, eschews anachronistic attempts at hipness to embrace a flowery style that is true enough to pass historical muster while not putting off modern ears.
The action takes the Surprise from Brazil, round the perpetually tempest-tossed Horn, and the ice of the Antarctic while examining the peculiar sort of community that forms on ships at sea. Even in the heat of battle, Weir never lets us forget that these are individuals putting their lives on the line. Oddly, though, Aubrey is the least fleshed out, though Crowe does a properly swaggering job in playing him. Bettany, as the more eccentric, emotional character, is the more intrinsically interesting of the two.
To complicate life, there are belligerent French and privateers who we learn, are not to be confused with pirates, on-board drama and heartbreak that all add up to make MASTER AND COMMANDER an engrossing and ripping yarn from start to finish.