Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World Review
By Joe Lozito
Ship for Brains
If it's the early 1800s and you're in the British Navy, I think you'd be very happy to have Russell Crowe in command of your ship. In "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World", Mr. Crowe does for the British Navy what he did for the Roman Empire as Captain "Lucky" Jack Aubrey, commander of the HMS Surprise and hero of Patrick O'Brian's series of novels. Looking like a young Charles Laughton, Mr. Crowe is a fair captain who loves his ship and respects his crew, rewarding good behavior with extra rations of grog. He's one of those fictional characters who seems to be able to win just by sheer will.
As a "Star Trek" fan, I can't help but to wonder if Gene Roddenberry and Patrick O'Brian had shared notepads. Captain Aubrey's main confidant is the ship's doctor, an Irishman, played by Paul Bettany. Like Dr. McCoy, Mr. Bettany's Dr. Maturin is a strict man of science and a good conscience to Captain Aubrey's blustery man-of-action. The O'Brian novels started in the early 70s, after the "Star Trek" original series was off the air, but before "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" which owes much to the fog-based sea battle which opens the film.
In order to tackle the fiercely adored series, director Peter Weir (who co-wrote with John Collee) chose to adapt events from the first and tenth novels, which concentrate on building the Aubrey/Maturin friendship during a cat-and-mouse chase between the Surprise and the French ship The Acheron. Originally the Surprise's enemy was an American ship during the War of 1812. The time period was pushed back and the vessel made French presumably to make it more palatable to the deep pockets of the easily-offended US theatergoers. I'm not much of a student of history, so I can't say if this change makes much sense historically, but it seems like a rather significant and arbitrary alteration.
Regardless, the film is a stunning technical achievement. There are two exceptional sea battles which bookend the film and some wonderful shots of the Surprise as it sails around Cape Horn, but the film is really startling for the authenticity with which it depicts life at sea. The film takes place almost entirely aboard the Surprise and the cramped quarters, grime and stench of the ship are palpable. Mr. Weir, in top form, does an excellent job finding interesting ways to film the journey and its crew of not-quite-interchangeable characters.
The theme of sacrifice runs throughout the film with varying degrees of effectiveness. Mr. Weir had to choose carefully from the huge amount of material in O'Brian's novels. By and large, he finds interesting ways to make the characters recognizable, though it's hard to care about many more than the Captain and the Doctor. It's clear that this franchise has room to grow. Whether or not the notoriously finicky Mr. Crowe will remain onboard is unknown. But as for the Surprise, I would be happy to see her sail again.