Master and Commander: The Far Side Of The World

Slightly above average naval chase hokum. Needs 40% more buckles swashed.

Released in 2003, certified UK-12A. Reviewed on 30 Nov 2003 by Scott Morris
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Napoleon. Short, nasty and brutish. The Napoleonic wars were also nasty and brutish, although hardly short. With those dastardly French trying to take over the world only the British fleet stands between them and domination. Pride of the fleet is the HMS Surprise, captained by 'Lucky' Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe). The ship is sent off the coasts of Brazil with orders to search out and destroy or capture the privateer ship Acheron. That, essentially, is the whole story.

Perhaps a little harsh, after all that's a glib way to summarise two and a quarter hours of naval exercises. Yet it remains at heart a chase movie, after an initial encounter leaves the Surprise battered by superior cannon fire and barely limping away to be refitted at sea. Being the stubborn type, Captain Jack sets a course to pursue the blasted Acheron if not to the ends of the Earth then to The Far Side Of The World, as the unwieldy subtitle goes. Taking them around Cape Horn before finally cornering the Acheron around the Galapagos Islands, their journey is not without its problems.

Various little sub episodes and interactions between the sizeable crew take their toll on both the ship and the souls that sail within her. Despite being fiercely loyal to their captain, there's a slight feeling that Aubrey is pursuing a foolish vendetta with the French captain that could ruin them as they experience drought and high water on their perilous quest. The crew get it into their heads that one of the midshipmen officers is cursed and dooming them to failure, with the resultant psychological effects on the young lad. Supplies run low, friendships are tested, so on, so forth.

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Which is all well and good, and arguably makes for a more realistic view of a lengthy mission in harsh environments. It rather loses sight of the fact that it's a chase movie not only at heart but by definition. The continual interruptions make it a chase movie that stops chasing for long periods of it's runtime and gives it something of a wandering focus which comes as something of an unwelcome surprise for those expecting it to be the tight little tale it's advertised to be.

In itself that's not enough to scuttle the film assuming these little sidetracks are suitably interesting. It's a pity that's not quite the case. It's not bad, as such just a little...flat would perhaps be the best description. It tries to build up empathy with a range of crewmembers but as only Crowe and Paul Bettany (probably best known for his role as the eponymous Gangster No. 1) as the ships surgeon and resident nature expert Dr. Stephen Maturin that are given anything substantial to say. While Aubrey makes an inspiring leader in the full flight of battle as a character he's pretty one-dimensional, only a subtle look of regret and loneliness at a passing native woman hinting at any depth of feeling for anything outside of their own little shipbound wooden world. Part of the leader persona perhaps and again the realism of Captains showing no weakness but this isn't a documentary, it's a film. I know realism. It's called life, it's largely overrated and has little place in an entertainment forum.

While the good doctor is most certainly a good doctor (anyone fitting a metal plate to someone's skull while at sea and later operating on himself without modern day luxuries such as anaesthetic can not have their competency questioned) and makes several valid points on the journey, his eventual substantial arguments with Aubrey have the sound of a petulant schoolboy than a man of schooling and seems out of character, disjointed with the rest of the film.

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Disjointed is indeed this movies watchword. Like the series of novel that spawned it this feels like a series of separate episodes wrapped up into one feature length episode. It could do with trimming it down a little as it just isn't interesting enough to hold attention over it's chunky span. Few of the characters are interesting enough to bring life to their subplots, and there's some strange usage of camera time going on as well. Billy Boyd gets a fair amount of face time as the Coxswain, an undoubtedly valuable member of the crew (what with steering the ship and all) but that's his only purpose, compared to some other characters who are left to portray inner turmoil in thirty seconds or less. It's harsh, yet accurate to assume this is mere cashing in on his Lord Of The Rings fame by the casting agency.

Technically it's hard to find fault with this. It looks stunning. Waves fall and crash against the ship with frightening force, cannons fire with suitable thunder and the sweeping tracking shots over the Surprise at full sail are little short of jaw dropping. Any fears that Pirates Of The Caribbean may have ruined the 'serious' naval movie genre have been dispelled by Peter Weir in extravagant form. Again, the only possible flaw is the familiarity breeding contempt as you find your jaw dropping less and less every time those sweeping tracking shots are used. It's a strong contender for next year's effects Oscars. Similarly an excellent job is done showing the sweaty claustrophobia of the gundeck and the close quarters fights on boarding vessels is well handled by the Truman Show director.

Rather bafflingly Master & Commander has been claimed as Gladiator 2 by some dubious sources presumably on the flimsy basis of a) having Russell Crowe and b) costing pots of cash to make. Thematically and structurally it's actually more like a nautical Wrath Of Kahn, if you'll pardon the geek interlude. I desperately wanted to like this more, but it's just not terribly engaging on any particular level other than as an impressive recreation of an old warship and wave tank mastery. You will see far worse movies but ultimately you'll see many more that you'll actually care about and perhaps have a little more sympathy with the characters.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 3/5 TippyMarks.

Peter Weir
Cast list:
Russell Crowe (Capt. Jack Aubrey)
Paul Bettany (Dr. Stephen Maturin)
James D'Arcy (1st Lt. Tom Pullings)
Edward Woodall (2nd Lt. William Mowett)
Chris Larkin (Capt. Howard, Royal Marines)
Max Pirkis (Blakeney, Midshipman)
Jack Randall (Boyle, Midshipman)
Max Benitz (Calamy, Midshipman)
Lee Ingleby (Hollom, Midshipman)
Richard Pates (Williamson, Midshipman)
Robert Pugh (Mr. Allen, Master)
Ian Mercer (Mr. Hollar, Boatswain)
David Threlfall (Preserved Killick, Captain's Steward)
Billy Boyd (Barrett Bonden, Coxswain)
Joseph Morgan (William Warley, Cpt. of Mizzentop)
William Mannering (Faster Doudle, Able Seaman)
Patrick Gallagher (Awkward Davies, Able Seaman)
Mark Lewis Jones (Mr. Hogg, Whaler)
John DeSantis (Padeen, Loblolly Boy)
Ousmane Thiam (Black Bill, Killick's Mate)
Thierry Segall (French Captain)