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Master And Commander:
The Far Side Of The World
cast: Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, Billy Boyd, James D'Arcy, and David Threlfall

director: Peter Weir

130 minutes (12) 2003
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
20th Century Fox DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
Master And Commander is that rarity - an action film made by an intellectual director. Peter Weir, whose previous credits include the cult title Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975), as well as the more recent successes Dead Poets Society (1989) and The Truman Show (1998), has often had a special relationship with water, witness its importance in The Last Wave (1977). In Master And Commander, for the most part, his sailor cast are surrounded by it - only setting ground once in the Galapagos Islands, and then at the requirement of the ship's resident surgeon-naturalist Maturin (Paul Bettany). For the rest of the time the focus of the film is entirely aboard the HMS Surprise, charged with the pursuit of the French privateer Acheron - a much larger and faster vessel, which, through a run of bad luck, continues to elude and outgun the British. In command is Captain 'Lucky Jack' Aubrey (Russell Crowe), his ship a microcosm of the society from which it springs for "this ship is England... on the far side of the world." It's also a vessel on which he has served for a number of years - having soaked enough of his blood into the timbers "for it almost to be a relative," and his youthful initials carved into the wood at the bow.
   Significant too is the year during which events are set. 1805 was the great year of Trafalgar. The prestigious shadow of Lord Nelson looms large over the considerably more minor engagements of the Surprise, and Aubrey regales his officers with anecdotes of encountering the great man himself. Other, subtler historical echoes are found as the ship visits the Galapagos Islands, to re-provision and to help heal the sick. Maturin's excited discovery of new species, and his careful naturalism, is suggestive of Darwin's real life experiences there a few years later. Also on board is a young Midshipman Blakeney (Max Pirkis), whose loss of arm during an early engagement provides a visual reminder of the famous Admiral back home. At the centre of the film is the relationship between Captain and the ship's Surgeon (reminiscent of a more famous one in the original Star Trek). The two are close friends, bonded by mutual respect and a love of music, although at odds over the exacting requirements of His Majesty's service.
   Aubrey is of the sea, a man of action, whose belief in discipline is paramount - including use of the lash if necessary. In contrast, Maturin is worldlier; a 'modern man' with wider interests than just naval conflict and, in private, forces his friend to confront issues of power and science. The duo balance each other out and it is tribute to Weir's melding of two books from the original Patrick O'Brian naval series that their relationship works so well. Praise is due as well to the performances of Crowe and Bettany, re-establishing their screen chemistry together after A Beautiful Mind (2001). It is their interaction, sometimes set to music in a touching way unexpected in this sort of film, which anchors the physical action seen elsewhere.
   For those who come to Master And Commander after seeing the recent Pirates Of The Caribbean the difference could not be greater. While Verbinski's somewhat surreal romp owed an unspoken debt of inspiration to the gleeful fantasy and athleticism of Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Weir's production harks back to the seriousness of a different tradition: that of Hornblower. For the director an accurate recreation of period detail was essential, right down to the ropes lay on the rigging (twisting a different way round to contemporary knotting). If there are weaknesses in the film, ironically they're in the some of the incidentals of plot rather than its staging. As Weir admits elsewhere on the DVD, he originally had doubts about adapting O'Brian to the screen, as the author's storylines did not easily make for a good film. By jettisoning a good deal and combining material across books he came up with a reasonable script although even so, some have felt that the film's middle could have done with some tightening. The episode in which an officer faces hostility from the crew then finally leaps overboard feels somewhat extraneous and, arguably, could have been left out without much loss, while the doom-prophesying older seaman ("..e's a Jonah awlright!") is a surprising and somewhat distracting stereotype amidst an otherwise entirely convincing setting. Those who might have doubted Weir's ability to conduct action set pieces excitingly need have no doubts as the two or three principal action sequences are carried off excellently with miniature and CGI work entirely invisible.
   Music is used carefully in the film, often brought in as part of the fabric of its world. To play his part, Crowe was obliged to learn the violin and is convincing at it while Bettany works with the cello. The director was careful to include two or three contemporary pieces the charm of which cements the main friendship on board, while Vaughan Williams' Fantasia On Greensleeves plays under a particularly poignant sequence, recalling the similar use of Barber's famous Adagio some years ago in Platoon (1986). The rest of the score is relatively unobtrusive - a wise decision, as leaves a lot of the film to speak for itself and is another indication of the director's concern for naturalism.
   Filmed as much as possible without the use of artificial seas and CGI, Weir's film is extremely convincing in portraying life and death on board, and some of the interactions between the ranks between cramped decks. Even Aubrey's poor jokes seem part and parcel of the blunt manner of the man. The producers secured a genuine period reconstruction vessel for a lot of the scenes and, together with Weir's characteristically careful direction, the result is a success all round, if ultimately no masterpiece.
   A generous package of extras is available as part of the two-disc set (a single DVD issue is also available). These include a 68-minute production journal, which reveals much of the work that went behind the precise recreation of early 19th century maritime life, as well as demonstrating Weir's satisfaction with the excellent performances of the cast in their roles. In a shorter 17-minute piece, the director gives a run through of the inspiration behind the film (he is an O'Brian enthusiast), while other segments consider the special effects on offer in the film, as well as a chance to compare audio samples of naval gunfire. As a guide Weir is consistently good value, being in turn informed and engaging, and his relish of the project coming across very strongly. There's also an HBO First Look at the work and eight deleted scenes - some of which are especially regretful, given that they showed careful amplifications of the private lives of the ordinary crew.
   Perhaps it was felt enough was enough, but there is no director commentary to add to all this. Only a 'sizzle reel' for the forthcoming I, Robot seems out of place, and serves to point up the likely superiority of the present offering.
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