See-worthy: Crowe commanding on bounding main
Six months ago, who would have thought a historical adventure involving sailing vessels would draw an audience? The makers of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World fell back to let Pirates of the Caribbean test the waters, so to speak, before unleashing their more serious film on the public.
Moved from the novel's War of 1812 setting, Master and Commander takes place in 1805, during the Napoleonic Wars, when Britain was holding the line against the Little Corporal's quest for world domination.
Capt. Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), known as Lucky Jack, commands the HMS Surprise which, in the exciting opening sequence, is heavily damaged by the French ship Acheron during a sneak attack in the morning fog. A few men die, and both the ship's figurehead and angelic young midshipman, Lord Blakeney (Max Pirkis), lose their right arms.
Capt. Aubrey's right hand– and best friend– is the ship's doctor, Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), a man of science who uses the ship's travels to study nature in far-flung locations. He puts up with the battles as an occupational hazard and puts people back together as best he can when they're over. In quieter moments, he and Jack form a string duet on violin and cello.
The Acheron is a privateer, a mercenary vessel licensed by the French to attack British ships and keep the spoils. It becomes Jack's Moby Dick as he first tries to elude it, then obsessively pursues it around South America.
Learning of the Acheron's advanced construction that makes it faster despite being heavier and with a thick hull that's impervious to the Surprise's cannon, Jack remarks, "What a fascinating modern age we live in!"
Aside from the British vessel, which we almost never leave, Master and Commander has few surprises. The strategy that will give Aubrey the edge in the climactic battle is telegraphed early on in one of those scenes that beat you over the head to be sure you get the point. (Funny the tactic should be so effective, when "camouflage" is a French word.)
We never get to know anyone aboard the Acheron, presumably to ensure that we won't like them. As if making them French wasn't enough!
When the two ships are about to engage a second time, a storm comes up and takes its toll on the Surprise. Meticulously executed by the visual effects team, it's an even more perfect storm than the one in the film of that name. The crew loses enthusiasm as Lucky Jack seems to run out of luck, and a suspected "Jonah" has to be dealt with before he commands their unconditional loyalty again.
All the usual macho scenes are included, if perfunctorily: a flogging, glistening musclemen rowing, bodies climbing the rigging and sliding around on deck during a storm, the doctor operating on himself.
The only feminine presence, other than the teenage boys, is in a brief scene of Brazilian whores pulling alongside during a trading stop. They don't have time to do more than flirt, but they look good in the trailer.
While the script is nothing special, the production values make Master and Commander see-worthy. Director Peter Weir has been as obsessive in his pursuit of authenticity as Jack Aubrey is in pursuit of the Acheron. The camera may dwell a bit too long on period props as a way of putting the money on the screen, but if the effects were any more realistic they'd have to give out barf bags for seasickness.
There are too many characters for each to make an impression, but the acting is fine, with Crowe affirming his status as one of our top screen heroes. There are no wacky pirates, but there's too much water for Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World to be dismissed as a dry-as-dust history lesson.