Peter Weir's "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" is a grand epic of strength, triumph and tragedy. It's one of the rare films this year that doesn't depend on next-generation special effects to work. Consider that the three big trailers that proceed the film are "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" "Timeline" and "The Day After Tomorrow." All three I highly anticipate, especially "The Day After Tomorrow," but they still require that same kind of magic (and much more of it) that brought those nasty pirates back to life in this summer's blockbuster, "The Pirates of the Caribbean." But this swash-buckler is intelligent and offers more than just a few witty one-liners and special effects.
What do I mean by intelligent and skillful? Take the pep talk given to the British crew before they engage the favored French. The crew is asked, "Do you want to see a guillotine in Piccadilly? Do you want your children to grow up singing the 'Marseillaise'?" I'd say that's a little deeper than the usual, "let's give 'em hell!"
Based on two novels by Patrick O'Brian, "Master and Commander" takes us back to 1805 and aboard the HMS Surprise, a British Naval ship with orders to intercept the Acheron, a French vessel much larger than the Surprise and a faster one as well. We know they're both sailing toward the Galapagos Islands, but we're never quite sure of who's in the lead or which one is the predator at that moment. And because almost the entire film takes place on the Surprise and from the crew's perspective, we never know just how far past the murky fog the Acheron floats, haunting our heroes.
The Surprise is commanded by Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), a stern leader who has enough experience under his belt to be taken seriously. He likes to get drunk and tell bad jokes at the officers' dinner table when he's not commanding his crew. When he's more relaxed, Aubrey finds time to play the violin. He doesn't necessarily go by the books in his practice, but is rooted in tradition and depends on classic methods of punishment for insubordinate crew members. Simply not respecting a superior earns you a lashing.
And discipline is a virtue always in high demand as much of the crew are too young to obtain a drivers license, had cars existed in the beginning of the 19th century. One of the key characters is Lord Blakeney (Max Pirkis), a teenager who is actually put in command of one of the decks during an important battle. His story begins to unfold due to the consequences which I must not reveal of a battle that takes place early on. He takes an interest in biology, the hobby of Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), the ship's doctor.
Maturin is another extremely important character, not just because he is the only surgeon on deck and is Blakeney's role model, he is also Aubrey's best friend. Often Aubrey comes for Maturin's advice which is not always pleasant. Maturin does not fall within the Navy ranks and can generally speak his mind in front of Aubrey. The primary reason Maturin is even on the Surprise is so he can collect rare or never-before-seen animal species off the Galapagos Islands.
The movie spends a lot of time on the crew and their lives spent on the ship. Work is hard but good performance usually earns rewards that range from an extra serving of food to an extra shot of liquor. The crew of young men bond together through the tough times although some of the relationships are a bit more bitter. Hollum (Lee Ingleby), the young leader of his own group seems to have lost the respect of the men. After Aubrey scares it back into them, there's a scene where Hollum is walking on the deck and gets a quick salute from every man he passes. It's awkward for him because he's not used to it, and it eventually adds to his stress.
And then of course there's the Acheron they must deal with. Is it not too far in front of them, or is it stalking them from the rear? Is the Surprise in good enough condition to continue its pursuit after the last battle? These are all decisions that must be made by Aubrey, and he isn't afraid to be drastic.
I love how we rarely get to see the Acheron. Only through dense fog and the lens of the captain's telescope do we get to see warship that Aubrey's crew faces. The actual battles are simply amazing. Cannons blast with full fury hurling massive balls of iron into the hull of the enemy vessel. Director Peter Weir captures every sound; from the high-pitch scream the balls make as they pierce through the air to the breaking of the ship's wood on impact.
The final showdown is a duel commenced by Aubrey's crew following his cunning plan to defeat the Acheron. I don't want to give you any details of the plan, or how it is executed, but I will say that it rightfully earns its hard PG-13 rating. Don't think for a moment that because it's PG-13 that it is any less intense than an R-rated epic. The absence of sex and adult language allows the film to be violent and maintain a general admission rating. And the film does get intense. We see many casualties, and anesthetic-free triage surgery for those still alive.
Even when the cannonballs aren't zipping through the air and the swords aren't clashing, there is always something going on that deserves our attention. Whether it's watching the crew heroically brave a fierce storm to secure to the sails or the doctor performing open-skull surgery on the main deck, there is never a dull moment to endure.
Russell Crowe, who has yet to fail me in any of his performances, leads a strong cast of highly talented actors. They've transformed O'Brian's novels into a flawless screen adaptation under the controls of the equally impressive Peter Weir who put so much passion into his creation, especially in the breathtaking cannonball battles.
There's just so much to love about the film and I rather you experience it in the theater than in my review. I was fixated for all 138 minutes of this amazing movie and engaged every scene with enthusiasm. I hate making early predictions and top-10 lists, but I'll go ahead and say "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" has earned the number one spot on mine as of mid-November.