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

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Where Pulp Meets Art

(Best of 2003)

This isn’t what I was expecting. I figured on clanging swords and thundering cannons and lots of swashbuckling, but this buckles far less swash than I imagined it would. I was expecting pulpy action adventure that was a whole lot of movie fun — I wasn’t expecting pulpy action adventure with real smarts and genuine heart and a grounding in reality. I was expecting that I would be reminded most of Pirates of the Caribbean that it would just be rollicking and jaunty and a great ride. But in fact I’m reminded most, of all movies, of Hulk — as Ang Lee did earlier this year, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World elevates pulp fiction to art. I don’t have to qualify my praise for this all-around thrilling film — it’s not merely a terrific adventure movie, it’s a terrific movie. It’s a great and wonderful and glorious film, period.

Still, I should have known that Master and Commander would turn out to be is so much more, so much better than my already high expectations had hoped for. This is a Peter Weir film, and Weir makes beautiful films — I think in every Weir film I’ve seen, there’s at least one moment that is so breathtakingly stunning that it’s stuck with me forever. The silhouettes of the boys stealing across the night-shrouded hill in their pointed hoods in Dead Poets Society. The barn-raising in Witness, which I might choose as the single most perfect scene in a film ever. That moment in Master and Commander may well be the stroll belowdecks of the HMS Surprise that opens the film: the nicknames etched on the cannon housings, the ballast swaying from the rafters, the sailors folded deep into their hammocks, the livestock in their cramped little pen blinking in the lantern light. Or it could be when the crippled Surprise escapes a battle into a concealing mist, towed by her able seamen rowing in boats ahead of her. The whole film is simply amazing to look at, and since I’ve only seen it twice, I can’t yet decide which bit is more marvelous than all the others.

And yet Master and Commander isn’t merely visually striking — it’s a triumph of visual storytelling as well. Weir (The Truman Show) and John Collee — who spun magic from pulp as a writer for the BBC’s short-lived 1987 TV series Star Cops, the best science fiction show no one’s ever seen — give us a masterful adaptation of Patrick O’Brian’s beloved novels of “Lucky” Captain Jack Aubrey and the Napoleonic War on the high seas. It’s an immersive experience, one that trusts the audience’s intelligence while it mines drama and suspense from the intricacies of 19th-century naval strategies. The film’s attention to unexplained detail is one of its great strengths and a major reason that it works in the larger scale — Aubrey and his officers toss off commands that are cryptic to us, here in the 21st century, and then Weir just lets the action unfold, staging with an obsessive glee and a sturdy grace the chases and ruses of the cat-and-mouse game of Aubrey and his Surprise and an enemy French captain of the faster, stronger privateer Acheron.

It’s such a simple story, really, that Master and Commander has to tell, of the months-long engagement between these two ships, and yet in that simplicity is an entire world, lost to the past and now brought again to life, singing with romance while never pretending to be anything other than nasty and dangerous. It’s through the characters that it comes alive — what little dialogue there is is mostly devoted not to battle plans but to relationships, and even then, affections and resentments are rarely actually spoken of, and the passing of knowledge and courage from the older hands to the younger ones mostly happens in silent ways, or behind gruff words.

The remarkable performances of the entire cast add a richness to the film that it would not succeed without — this is the rare action movie in which the particular instances of daring or sacrifice or combat are vital to the depiction of the characters as real, complicated people and not mere obstacle courses for them to navigate and survive in order to get to the next scene. If they didn’t breathe for us, and if we didn’t care about them, the film would be nothing. Russell Crowe (A Beautiful Mind, Proof of Life) lets fly with a twinkle in his eye and a constant flirtation with a sly grin, his Aubrey never more alive than when sailing headfirst into mortal danger. Paul Bettany (The Heart of Me, A Knight’s Tale) takes a giant leap forward as an actor with his Stephen Maturin, the ship’s doctor and a bit of a pacifist, seething with frustration and fondness for his friend Aubrey, whom he terms a “predator” and suspects of recklessness in the pursuit of duty even while it pains him to be the sole man aboard ship who can tell him this.

But the real revelation is 13-year-old newcomer Max Pirkis as the green midshipman Lord Blakeney. Never mind that Blakeney overcomes a grievous wound and commands men three times his age in battle, a heavy dramatic burden to ask of an inexperienced actor. Blakeney is the focal point for the vibrancy of the film, through whom all the other diverse characters intersect, through whom all the themes of the film — courage, honor, duty, loss — are expressed. Blakeney is in the middle of the clash between the superstitious past represented by the older sailors, who deem the Acheron a “phantom” and disparage a timid young officer as “cursed,” and the dawning of an age of reason represented by man-of-science Maturin and the Surprise‘s detour to the Galapagos Islands, three decades before Darwin; between the calm rationality of Maturin and the heated muscularity of Aubrey, both to whom Blakeney is mentored. And the kid is downright astonishing, with a subtle passion and a nuanced appreciation of his character’s position in a highly stratified environment.

You can’t miss this film. It’s too perfect an example of what a movie should be: visually and emotionally enrapturing and full of people who, now that you’ve met them, you don’t ever want to leave. I can’t say enough good things about it, and I can’t find a single bad thing to say, either. This is pretty much as good as it gets.

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