Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (12A)

The strangest thing about Peter (Witness) Weir’s adaptation of Patrick O’Brian’s novel is that there is very little plot. Instead the majority of the film involves interplay between a variety of characters and Russell Crowe’s benign captain,  ‘Lucky Jack’ Aubrey.

Yet what Weir does exceptionally well is evoke the mood, spirit and atmosphere of early 19th century seafaring men, with creaking masts, groaning bulkheads, monstrous waves and roaring cannon playing as big a part as Jack and his loyal lads.

Master and Commander is a throwback to those great Errol Flynn epics of yesteryear. And, like his fellow Antipodean, Crowe’s swashbuckling, devil-may-care attitude mixed with the clash of cutlass and the smoke of musket powder makes this the type of thinking man’s action drama that The Matrix never could be. It looks and feels real, and surely that’s the real trick.

Set in 1805, Master and Commander is the first of O’Brian’s many novels to be filmed. It introduces the character of ‘Lucky Jack’, a flawed yet hugely popular captain in the British Navy of King George III played with a certain panache by Russell Crowe who tests the loyalty of crew and friends alike by his dogged pursuit of the French privateer, The Acheron.

The ship has already attacked and badly damaged Aubrey’s ship HMS Surprise. Knowing he faces a greater enemy with more guns and men, Aubrey begins an obsessive chase across the Atlantic, from Brazil to the Galapagos.

Admittedly, Master and Commander boasts the most thrilling ocean-going action since Errol Flynn played The Sea Hawk. It simply hasn’t been don this well in years. Crowe plays O’Brian’s creation – a hands-on, caring captain, very unlike the despotic Bligh – with a swagger and a smile.

His moods and devotion to orders are tempered by the figure of Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany, reuniting with Crowe after A Beautiful Mind), ship’s doctor, botanist, brain surgeon and moral conscience. The voice of reason, he sees Aubrey’s single-minded preoccupation with the Acheron as nothing short of a soggy game of hide and seek born of folly and pride.

Throw in those staples of tales of salty seadogs – a Jonah, bad luck and a jinxed ship; “It’s a devil ship, I tell yer! It’s leading us right into a trap.” – and this rapidly becomes everything it should be.

But while director Weir’s attention to detail cannot be faulted – every inch of rigging, every plant of wood, every thread of every costume appears authentic – it is almost his downfall. The film’s one considerable failing is that it is not in any hurry to tell its story.

Thus long stretches of what passes for plot drift along as the Surprise bobs along on the ocean waves. With the Acheron merely a speck on the horizon all attention is focused on Aubrey’s furrowed brow, his relationship with Maturin and the below decks goings-on of the men.

That it succeeds is down to Weir’s ability to hold an audience’s attention. He does so via a storm of Biblical proportions, a near mutiny and a deafening battle sequence with a traditional broadside as its centrepiece.

This is what high adventure is all about, and Master and Commander delivers.

Star rating: ****

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