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Master And Commander
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Master And Commander:
The Far Side Of The World
cast: Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, Max Pirkis, George Innes, and Billy Boyd

director: Peter Weir

130 minutes (PG-13) 2003
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
20th Century Fox NTSC VHS retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Amy Harlib
It took the resources of three major film studios: 20th Century Fox, Universal Pictures and Miramax, plus acclaimed, versatile, experienced, Australian director (and co-scripter) Peter Weir (Gallipoli, Witness, Dead Poets Society, The Mosquito Coast, among others), to make Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World, a cinematic adaptation that conflates the plots of two books from Patrick O'Brian's popular 20-volume series of historical novels. All the money, effort and talent that went into this project was not wasted, and the resulting epic period piece is so richly detailed that it's the next best thing to having a time machine.

For some odd reason (perhaps related to current politics), the picture changes the era of the action from the original written source's war of 1812 to the slightly earlier Napoleonic conflicts, specifically the year 1805 when England was fighting the French, yet the spirit overall remains true to O'Brian's beloved works. The story concerns the British Navy's doughty 28-gun frigate H.M.S. Surprise, patrolling off the coast of Brazil receiving orders to sink, capture or otherwise halt the progress of the more powerful, swifter, 40-gun, enemy privateer, the Acheron, before she can reach the Pacific.

The Surprise's Captain, 'Lucky' Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), his best friend, the ship's doctor and serious hobby-naturalist Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), plus the all-male crew of 197, set forth. All too quickly, the quarry becomes a predator and the Acheron makes a surprise attack on the Surprise, causing much damage and killing some men, wounding many more. The undeterred Aubrey orders repairs at sea, resolved to overcome the opponent, pursuing the Acheron from Brazil around the stormy Cape Horn and on to the Galapagos Islands, where Maturin gets to indulge in his proto-Darwin inclinations. Aubrey often finds his official duties and the rigors of command conflicting with his friendship with Maturin but the two men have a bond strong enough to weather some fascinating philosophical and emotional differences for they will need everything they have, including some clever strategy based on Maturin's scientific studies, when the final encounter with the Acheron happens in a thrilling climax.

While the HMS Surprise and the Acheron play their nautical chess game (metaphorically speaking), the film, photographed and enacted on a real sailing vessel, meticulously recreates early 19th century shipboard life: cramped, dingy quarters; grunge; rotten, vermin-infested food; elaborate, hierarchical command-structure; crew of all ages and a variety of types from pre-adolescent boys, to seniors, to including a few members of African descent; the amazing skill of the sailors climbing on and manipulating the intricate ropes and rigging; the horrors of medical care without hi-tech diagnostic aids, anaesthetics or antibiotics; and the constant dangers of all kinds from injuries and especially from bloody battles between ships at sea. The one thing left out to get that PG-13 rating was the rampant same-sex erotic practices that occurred, though good old garden-variety camaraderie does get well depicted.

In addition to the stunning visuals revealing the frigate in every fascinating detail, the character development really excels with the relationship between Aubrey and Maturin splendidly and subtly portrayed by Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany in top form. Crowe's Aubrey with his bold, impetuous, shrewd and charismatic personality able to maintain discipline yet compassionate when needed complements and makes a great pair with Bettany's Maturin - thoughtful, more reserved in demeanour yet generous of spirit. Their differences harmonise, literally so for the two friends spend some of their after-supper downtimes making music together - Aubrey on violin to Maturin's cello. Many supporting players vividly stand out also: 13-year-old Max Pirkis as aristocratic Midshipman Blakeney; George Innes as Joe Plaice, an aged, old-timer; Robert Pugh as the plump and bombastic Master; Lee Inglesby as Hollus, the insecure, hesitant, young Midshipman no longer respected by his mates; and Billy Boyd as Coxswain Barrett Bondan.

Master And Commander, besides showing the Surprise in all its glory, offers plenty more dazzle in its depiction of oceanic expanses including a terrifying storm, the panoply of authentically crafted, detailed uniforms, an array of accurate props and appurtenances, and wonderful footage of the Galapagos Islands showing amazing glimpses of terrain, fauna and flora. The ship versus ship battle scenes are spectacular, with exciting action; yet realistically gross enough to expose the horrors of war without going over-the-top.

The film adds substance to entertainment through well-crafted dialogue and scenes dealing with issues concerning duty and the nature of command, discipline, courage, and the ship captain's military mission contrasting with the doctor's scientific explorations and quest for acquiring knowledge and specimens. All the proceedings get accompanied by an excellent symphonic score, by Iva Davies, Christopher Gordon, and Richard Tognetti, that sounds great whether complementing the sweeping nautical action or the quieter, thoughtful, gripping character development.

For an intelligent, absorbing adventure immersing the viewer in a bygone era brought to life through the magic of cinema, Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World ranks way up there. High-level performance skill (an all-guy picture with enough emotional expression and beefcake to please gals), interesting storytelling, technical aplomb (seamless CGI enhancement), excellent costuming, fine scoring and gorgeous cinematography, make the film worthy of its box office success.

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