Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World (Miramax, 2003)

Ahoy there, matey! When's the last time you went to the local cinema to feast your eyes on yards and yards of canvas, miles of oak, cannons, and salty sea dogs, vast panoramas of ocean, waves the height of buildings, and the colours furling and unfurling in the wind!?! Pirates of the Caribbean might have whetted your appetite...but Peter Weir's glorious epic Master and Commander serves up the main course.

Based on two volumes from Patrick O'Brien's twenty book series of Captain "Lucky" Jack Aubrey tales, Weir's film has been nearly two decades in the making. Weir makes films which are essentially in-depth studies of a culture. The Last Wave (1977) saw the clash between Australian aboriginals and the contemporary legal system; 1985's Witness took a big-city cop into the closed world of the Amish; The Year of Living Dangerously (1983) mixed Western reporters into an Indonesian rebellion; even with The Truman Show (1998) Weir looked at modern society, through the artificial culture of a television show, wherein the star believes it is real life. Master and Commander recreates the swashbuckling era of England's 19th Century Navy, and seeks to describe it as authentically as possible while at the same time providing a good yarn, and plenty of action.

Weir maintained an attitude of "my way or the highway" during the making of this film, and his corporate bosses allowed him that luxury. When investors were unhappy with the lack of a love interest Weir basically said, "Read the contract!" So you won't find any beautiful damsels in distress, their bodices heaving in anticipation of rescue. No...this is men. Men in dirty clothes, with bad teeth, and bits of their bodies shot off in battle. The below decks scenes are dark, dingy, claustrophobic. The on deck stuff is wide open, airy, you can feel the salt spray on your cheeks.

I'm in the middle of a new book (The Bounty by Caroline Alexander) which retells the story of the mutiny on the Bounty, which happened just a few years before Master and Commander purports to take place. It tells the story from diaries and letters, and brilliantly describes life on the seas in the late 18th Century. The make-up of the crew was essentially the same. Men who craved adventure were mixed with volunteers who needed work and others who were "pressed into service;" old salts, and young boys whose parents thought a Naval career would prepare them for life. It's shocking to see these youngsters, midshipmen, barely 13 years old, leading the able bodied seamen into battle, all of them losing limbs or life, for king and country.

Russell Crowe portrays Jack Aubrey, captain of HMS Surprise. The Surprise is an aging man-of-war but a source of pride for her captain and crew. When the ship's doctor questions the age of the ship Aubrey springs to her defense. He later reminds the crew that out in the middle of the ocean...this ship is home...this ship is England. Crowe's Aubrey is hard, honourable, courageous, intelligent, and trusted implicitly by his men. Crowe is a bulky hero, which gives his Aubrey a presence; no mere typhoon will knock him off his perch! Even on this journey to the Far Side of the World (as the French ship which is Aubrey's nemesis rounds Cape Horn for the Pacific), while some might question the logic of chasing the enemy that far, the men find a scapegoat for their bad luck in a "Jonah" and place no blame at Aubrey's feet.

On-board relationships are fascinating. The midshipmen cluster together below decks in an area made private only by a curtain. The able-bodied seamen hang like sides of beef in hammocks rocking with the motion of the ship. Doctor Stephen Maturin (ably played by Paul Bettany), and the Captain play violin and cello duets in the captain's cabin, and debate war, science, and literature. The captain lives by a code of honour, and service to his king. The physician is a man of books and music, interested in the flightless cormorant of the Galapagos Islands. And yet, he, too, is able to spring into action when called. The young midshipman, son of a Lord, bridges the two worlds. At thirteen he is still filled with awe in the presence of Aubrey, and with curiosity as he accompanies Dr. Maturin on the trek across the island. He is beautifully played by Max Pirkis.

The rounding of the Horn is awesome, the power and size of the waves overwhelming. The shots of the ship, especially those from overhead are beautiful. The film is long, but never becomes tedious...I could have easily watched more. The ending hints at a sequel, and with eighteen books left to film there are many tales to tell.

The enemy ship is seen only through fog, smoke, haze. It is a phantom. Even when the British sailors board her...she is an enigma. The scenes of battle are quick paced, and bloody. Master and Commander visits an alien culture. It is one where men do what they are told, or they die. They might die anyway. Many do. Whether Weir will revisit Aubrey's story remains a mystery. Crowe admitted to being game on Jay Leno last week.

Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World is a spectacular epic. Cinematically exquisite and action packed, it features relationships, beauty, honour and bravery. While depicting chicanery, and suspicion it revels in intelligence, loyalty, inquisitiveness and duty. It is two hours well spent.

 

[David Kidney]