A review of “Master and Commander, The Far Side of the World” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: *** 1/2

Rating: PG-13 for violence and intensity

Run Time: 2 hours, 8 minutes

 

 

Peter Weir (“The Truman Show”) finds his sea legs in this masterful re-telling of Patrick O’Brian’s meticulously detailed historical novels.

It’s 1805, and the British Royal Navy fleet is all that stands between Napoleon and total domination.  On the good ship HMS Surprise, twenty-eight guns and one hundred and ninety-seven souls are bent on conquering the French vessel Acheron; by sinking, burning, or taking her as a prize.

The Surprise is not an imposing craft, but she’s bluff of bow and stiff of line.  A “lovely seabird” in the words of her charismatic captain, Jack Aubrey (a delicious Russell Crowe).  The formidable Acheron is two feet thick of solid oak, twice the guns and twice the numbers of the Surprise and nearly impossible to penetrate. Excess cunning and determination are required to take her down.

Aubrey is a commander of singular vision – a champion of the Napoleonic Wars.  He swashes his buckle so fiercely that best friend and ship’s surgeon Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany) questions the wisdom of his belligerent expedition – an adventure that will likely lead to tragedy.  But “Lucky Jack” is not accustomed to defeat, and won’t succumb without a mighty fight.

Amidst insubordination, untimely deaths, and a run of unfortunate weather, Aubrey leads the charge with confidence, inspiring his men with words and deeds (“There’s not a faint heart among you”).  From the coast of Brazil to the turbulent waters of Cape Horn and on to the Galapagos Islands, the British frigate and her men chart the seas with every ounce of gusto they can muster.

With all due respect to Crowe, Weir is at the helm of this splendid, sea-worthy tale.  His cinematic fortitude is the foundation of every frame. “Master” is an epic spectacle, born of a bygone era that reeks of unruly exuberance. Obsessive attention to accuracy reveals scupper to gunwale honed to historical perfection. 

The high-stakes ship hunt spans two oceans in delightfully dramatic fashion, superimposed against stunning visuals and the heady aura of closely-confined testosterone.  Only the man-to-man combat scenes suffer from contemporary treatment, giving way to messy close-cut editing and unnecessary character confusion.

Crowe and Bettany are the crux of the narrative, their friendship yinning and yanging against personal and professional discord.  Crowe has fashioned a career out of conflicted heroes, and his Jack Aubrey is no exception – edgy, sexy, and bound by the honor of his duties.  (Oh Captain, my Captain!)  Bettany is the perfect foil – a man of science who must yield to the cry of battle in the name of principle and respect.

For derring-do of distinctive quality, “Master” is the one to beat.