Master And Commander: The Far Side of The World

10 out of 10


A film that even a land-lubber can sink into

Master and Commander is a strange film. It starts out with a dark view of a hostile ocean before settling on the ship that is the setting of almost the entire movie, the HMS Surprise. The crew quarters are cramped, the ale is bad, the waves relentless, and the sailors and naval officers are being led by Russell Crowe on a mission to destroy or capture a vessel that's bigger, better protected and better armed. And it has you cheering for them all the way.

This tale about a British vessel sent to stop the French privateer ship the Acheron in Napoleonic times is based on a novel by Patrick O'Brian. I cannot comment about how the movie compares to the book since I haven't read it, but it is a splendid movie even for someone like me who had no interest in the subject matter at all. It starts out in the waters around Brazil and goes as far as the Galapagos Islands which, compared to the characters' native England, really is the far side of the world. Hence the subtitle. While most of the story is set while at sea, the shore leave on the islands with the wondrous scenery and exotic flora and fauna make for a beautiful break to the paltry life on board ship.

The main theme is command itself which is why Crowe is the only actor with any real billing. He plays Captain "Lucky" Jack Aubrey, an effective leader and master seaman who walks the fine line between keeping the crew happy and enforcing strict discipline on his ship. But not everyone believes Aubrey is acting in the crew's best interests in pursuing their quarry as far as he does. Paul Bettany, who has played alongside Crowe before in "A Beautiful Mind", plays Dr. Stephen Maturin, a dear friend of the captain but who questions Aubrey's decisions and wonders if he is really just doing his duty for England or fallen to power's corrupting influence and now bent on revenge after the Acheron catches him unawares in more than one surprise attack.

Hailed for its accuracy in portraying life aboard ship in those times, it really opens your eyes to the way of life for these seamen. The haughty officers with the privilege of dining with the Captain. The enlisted crew content with their grog but with a current of worry about the success of the mission undermining their jovial nature. The tragically young midshipmen doing the duty of men on a ship of war. The film is masterfully done with excellent performances from all the actors in the film. So many of the characters can be identified with. The young lieutenant for whom command does not come naturally despite the coaching of the captain and succumbs to the stress of the job and the frightening comments he overhears from the other members of the crew. The seeminly carefree sailor who must choose following orders for the good of the ship over the life of his best friend. The youngest boy on board, so eager to please his commander but is permanently injured during an attack. The old seadog convinced of supernatural forces at play on the ship.

The ship itself is impressive as well and contributes as much to convincing the audience of how real the story is as the performances by the actors. I don't know that much about ship design but what I saw in the Surprise impressed me with the ingenuity of its construction and equipment despite how primitive it is compared to our modern technology. The atmosphere is dark and brooding, emphasizing the isolation of the crew out on the high seas away from all other civilization.

I've learned a lot watching this movie and gained a new appreciation for nautical history especially of that era. Life on the Surprise is harsh yet also beautiful where honour and respect have a strong presence on the military vessel. It also enlightened me on the complexities of command and the sometimes terrible consequences of the captain's orders. Director Peter Weir has my hearty thanks for a job very well done, as does Russell Crowe and the rest of the crew of the Surprise. Master and Commander is an excellent film that leaves the audience engaged and enthusiastic about the mission and its chances for success even after its strange ending.

Doubters will be flogged; 'Master' is in command

Film Critic: Erica N. Cebrowski