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Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Peter Weir, USA, 2003

Rating: 3.5

 

Posted: November 15, 2003

By Laurence Station

Based on Patrick O'Brian's series of historically detailed novels set in and around the period of the Napoleonic Wars, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World bends over backwards to provide a glimpse of life at sea for His Majesty's Royal Navy circa 1805. While the thrilling close- and far-quarter naval skirmishes seem the natural selling point, Master, as directed by Peter Weir, pays particular attention to the men who undertook such a dangerous profession. Most especially, Weir focuses on O'Brian's central relationship between the naturalistic man of science (Paul Bettany's sensitive, questing Dr. Stephen Maturin) and the hardened man of war (Captain Jack Aubrey, powerfully embodied by Russell Crowe). But whereas the too-few-and-far-between sea battles succeed in delivering the expected thrills, the film's attempts to reconcile these two sides of human nature fall woefully short, due to a lack of character depth and sundry clichéd examples of the price Aubrey pays to be both master and commander of his men.

The film (whose plot, like its titles, is cribbed from the first and tenth volumes in O'Brian's 20-volume saga) starts promisingly enough. Aubrey's H.M.S. Surprise is, well, surprised by the very ship it's been tracking, a larger, more powerfully armed French frigate menacingly named the Acheron. The Gallic ship appears seemingly out of nowhere (a heavy fog, in this particular case), badly damaging the Surprise and killing and injuring scores of her crew. Aubrey barely saves his wounded men -- and ship -- by ducking into the very fog the French used to launch their sneak-attack. Weir having successfully established the essential cat-and-mouse setup, the audience assumes the remainder of the film will involve Aubrey trying to outwit his wily counterpart until one springs the ultimate endgame maneuver on the other.

This does happen, albeit at a very deliberate pace -- yes, ultimately, there's an obligatory final battle between the two crews (more on this later). And yes, Weir scores points for his (presumably) accurate portrayal of what life at sea must have been like for (mostly) young men: Cramped conditions, lack of female companionship, and the expected tension and divisions between officers and enlisted (or shanghaied) men. Unfortunately, this veracity translates into long stretches of numbing calm, punctuated by occasional flashes of canon fire. It's what happens between the opening salvo and the last fusillade that threatens to bring Master crashing beneath the waves of mediocrity.

This extends to the key relationship between Aubrey and Maturin, close friends (if you're Captain, it's never a bad move to be tight with the ship's doctor) who debate the needs of science versus the just cause of war, play cello and violin together, and rather obviously embody noble, early Nineteenth century ideals of knowledge and conquest. The problem is that we get to know what the men stand for far better than we do the men themselves. Personal details about their lives back home are glossed over in favor of blustery speeches about what's better for God and Country: bagging a French warship or cataloguing exotic flora and fauna on the Galápagos Islands. It doesn't help that both Aubrey and Maturin attain their respective goals (though Maturin to a far less degree than Aubrey), which detracts from the push-pull tension of their relationship. Everybody wins, more or less; where's the lesson or drama in that?

Weir's second main focus, one he's touched on repeatedly during his career (in such films as Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Mosquito Coast, and Dead Poets Society), is the influence, both positive and negative, of adults on the children in their care. Aubrey takes 12-year-old Lord Blakeney (Max Pirkis) under his wing after the boy loses him arm following the opening battle. Blakeney, however, is drawn toward the man who actually amputated his damaged limb, Dr. Maturin, and ultimately serves as the symbol both men are wrestling to influence. Like the two older men's war of ideals, however, young Blakeney is allowed to pursue both science and battle by the film's conclusion, thus negating the unspoken contest to direct his later career choice. What Weir fails to consider, however, is that unlike the students in Poets, or the boarding-house girls in Hanging Rock, danger was a constant for these young men; this was the most perilous profession one could undertake during that era. Had Weir selected to focus on the courage, or lack thereof, of the ship's 'tweens and teens in actual combat, he could have gotten a lot more mileage out of their respective coming-of-age tales.

When the climatic battle between the Surprise and the Acheron thankfully comes, some two hours after the film began, cinematographer Russell Boyd (who's worked with Weir on Rock, Gallipoli and The Year of Living Dangerously) brings us right into the action, with the two ships trading shots and Aubrey's men boarding the damaged French vessel to battle the crew. It's a rousing finish that helps elevate the film's listing appeal and ultimately saves it from a fate as a high-priced, exquisite-looking failure. But long stretches of emptiness between the opening and closing conflicts, buttressed by less-than-fully-considered characterization, prove to be the albatross around Master's neck.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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