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

I intended to see this after shelving Patrick O’Brian’s books about three thousand times, seeing the spines which fit together into a single image–I admit, I’m a sucker for this gimmick–and eventually the temptation was too much; I put off purchasing the film (my preferred method of acquisition and viewing) upon discovering the existence of a two disc edition, which is what I just viewed. It was some time before it was on sale, and the list price being about forty dollars.

I did finally acquire it, but, as with most things, ended up putting it off a fair bit of time before getting around to watching it, but watch it I have. I had high hopes for a well-produced, nicely budgeted action adventure film starring the likes of Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany, who I was most firmly introduced to through Gangster No. 1, where he played a Young Malcolm McDowell (an easy way into the good books), though I later also saw him in A Beautiful Mind (again paired with Crowe) and finally in Wimbledon. I also knew him as one of the actors rumoured to be cast as The Joker in The Dark Knight (why they picked Heath Ledger is beyond me, but that’s another story). Crowe I knew, of course, primarily from Gladiator, and later Virtuosity, The Quick and the Dead, Cinderella Man, A Beautiful Mind, Romper Stomper and L.A. Confidential. So, amongst all these films, I saw little reason to doubt the quality of this film; Peter Weir I knew more by reputation than anything else (I had not seen The Dead Poets Society, Witness nor The Truman Show in some years, and have yet to see his movies with Mel Gibson) but it was a good reputation, so that made everything gel in expectation of quality.

As such, there’s not an awful lot for me to rave about; Crowe puts in an excellent performance as the now thoroughly experienced “Lucky” Jack Aubrey, master and commander of the H.M.S. Surprise, sometime violinist and devoted serviceman. He absolutely holds the necessary balances of authority, respect, compassion, pride and ambition necessary to easy fulfill my understanding of the character. Bettany gives an impassioned performance as his physician friend Stephen Maturin, the ship’s doctor and a naturalist by hobby–and, to complement Aubrey’s playing, a cellist. His is the near-anarchist to Aubrey’s earnest, stubborn duty-based philosophy, he argues passionately and without pause against Aubrey’s determined search for their current enemy in ship form–the French ship known as the Acheron.

I should note, here, that I had intended to read at least the first book prior to viewing the film, but got distracted before Master and Commander really had time to get moving, and got caught up in different books and have yet to return to it. As such, I operate, as translations go, on only the terms of that which I’ve been told and read on my own.

That said, it felt fully authentic as a period piece. Usually I find an overwhelming sense of “Look how much money we spent to make this look terribly, terribly dirty and lived in!” without any eye for legitimate authenticity; sure, everything is stitched down to the third slightly-off hand-stitch, but the dirt is all too carefully placed, and the guns are a little too bright, and carried a little too carefully. It ends up feeling a little bit off, and does not quite come together correctly. This film, however, felt appropriately claustrophobic and filled with bodies as a real ship should be, things were cluttered and dirty and did not automatically frame or position themselves for a nice-looking shot. By the same token, the battle scenes bore the post-modern approach of complete confusion and inability to determine what was going on to whom–I’m not a fan of this approach, but here it felt more like it was a frenzied attempt to catch the action, rather than simply someone spinning about in a circle with nothing to even try and focus on. Some movements were clearly choreographed–a bit distracting after my recent viewing of Kurosawa’s more naturalistic or exaggerated approaches–but they worked up the tension all the same, and, again, felt authentic to the scenes.

Overall, it was quite the experience I expected; a well-directed, well-acted, well-produced tight, tense, fun, dramatic film that perfectly fulfilled everything it set out to do.

A final note, as my sort of “personal trivia”–as a fan of the Galapagos Islands going back at least fifteen years now, I was quite enthused to see the wide-eyed exploration of the varied beasts of those islands through the eyes of the excitable naturalist Maturin and his young “apprentice.”


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