Master &Commander

November, 2003, Drama

Master & Commander-

        The Far Side of the World

"The devil's in the details" may be a venerable cliché, but only because it states an obvious truth; it's often the small and insignificant which ultimately carry the day. That's especially true of period movies set in a locale as specific as a 19th century British warship. Peter Weir, the Australian director who so graphically re-created his countrymen's tragic role in the invasion of Gallipoli, (in the film by that name) knows how to get the feel of historical material just right; the look of military equipment, mundane logistical details, military menus--all the stuff of which veracity is made. Perhaps that's why the producers chose him to tackle the characters created by novelist Patrick O'Brien in the 10 or more books comprising his British naval series featuring the adventures of Capt. Jack Aubrey during the Napoleonic wars. Selecting Weir displayed real shrewdness on the part of the film's producers, for Commander is a stunning adventure, combining breathtaking visual technique with crisp, believable characters in a story that has the intelligence to provide shrewd points about the motivations of the military. Swashbuckling yarns have never looked this good, nor been this much fun.

Russell Crowe, looking bulked up and a bit jowly as the captain of HMS Surprise, personifies the epitome of English heroism; stern but fair, committed to his superiors' orders but daring in their execution, and exuding the charisma of innate leadership. In the over-rated Gladiator, a rather pompous script assigned Crowe these characteristics without actually allowing him to demonstrate them; here, Weir and co-screenwriter John Collee allow their leading man to actually display these qualities in the ordinary conduct of the ship's activities and as a result, Crowe becomes a larger-than-life hero who wears his authority lightly but with a crisp, unstated credibility. The ship's physician, Dr. Stephen Maturin, (Paul Bettany, Crowe's imaginary room-mate in A Beautiful Mind) plays a unique combination of friend, side-kick and critic, wielding his medical skills, utter lack of nautical knowledge and fierce sense of moral principal to effectively counter-balance his captain's casually pragmatic approach to command. Weir allows the motivations of this pair to make Commander a rare mixture of action story grounded in ideas of moral responsibility for subordinates, appropriate limits of military discipline and the value of general intellectual inquiry vs. specific military objective. Interesting stuff, but the details….

Barefoot sailors unfurling huge swaths of canvas high in the ship's rigging or stripped to the waist working a gigantic bilge pump below decks, midshipmen too young to shave receiving the deference of vastly more experienced ordinary seamen, the gently forlorn sound of the ship's bell sounding midnight on an empty sea, the daily rations of grayish food, elaborate webs of wrist-thick rope securing the ships guns, the crew swilling it's daily ration of grog from heavy lead mugs while the officers drink wine from crystal goblets in the captain’s cabin--Weir captures a miniature society here, afloat on the ocean's vastness. Pursuing a larger, better-armed foe in the waters off the Brazilian Coast and later the Galapagos Islands, the director and his leading man hold the audience with an attention to detail and brilliant cinematography which simultaneously intrigues and thrills. The battle scene which provides the film's rip-roaring climax justifies this long prelude, but Commander achieves its great success by its ability to put the audience on board the ship, experiencing the fear of a storm going around Cape Horn, the maddening fog, the listlessness sails in a becalmed sea; everything in the movie reflects an attention to detail so perfectly observed you surrender to crew and officers alike, (all believable in their detailed personas) and to the ominous French frigate which, like Moby Dick, draws the Surprise further and further away from England and safety…

The Verdict? If we're lucky, they'll make a sequel or two.


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