It looks as though it’s safe for Hollywood to go back in the water, in terms of making period oceanic movies with some chance of success. For decades pictures set on sailing ships seemed unable to attract contemporary viewers–even the Bounty story failed to make a splash, either in terms of the 1962 remake with Marlon Brando or the Anthony Hopkins-Mel Gibson retelling of 1984. More recently, though, the A&E “Hornblower” series of telefilms have proven a consistent draw, and this summer “Pirates of the Caribbean” scored an unexpected triumph. Now director Peter Weir and star Russell Crowe have collaborated on a sumptuous film shaped from two of Patrick O’Brian’s popular novels about the adventures of British Captain “Lucky Jack” Aubrey and his friend and ship’s doctor Stephen Maturin during the Napoleonic wars. The result is a highly enjoyable movie that proves that even in the twenty-first century you don’t need a lot of light sabers and space vessels to generate cinematic excitement. The clumsy title of “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” is probably the worst thing about an exceptionally intelligent and robust old-fashioned maritime yarn that has the snap of fresh sea air.
The basic plot of the picture isn’t really much–it’s a cat-and-mouse pursuit story, sort of a variant of “Run Silent Run Deep” featuring surface sailing ships instead of submarines. In early 1805, before the French fleet was decisively defeated at Trafalgar by Admiral Nelson in October, Captain Aubrey and the crew of the H.M.S. Surprise engage in a duel with the Acheron, a larger, more powerful French vessel, that takes them to the coast of Brazil, around Cape Horn and into the Pacific, eventually ending up at the Galapagos Islands. The periodic battle scenes are beautifully choreographed and shot, and the passage through the treacherous, storm-tossed Cape is frightening enough to serve as a modern equivalent of the experience depicted in the original 1935 “Mutiny on the Bounty.” The mixture of full-scale action, model work and computer-generated effects in these sequences is absolutely seamless and equally enthralling, even more so than the purely CGI effect of “The Perfect Storm.” And the fact that some sequences were actually filmed on the Galapagos–the first time that’s been allowed–gives it a special interest; visually these episodes are quite extraordinary.
But as impressive as the recreation is–and in purely physical and historical terms it’s masterful (kudos to production designer William Sandell, cinematographer Russell Boyd, costumer Wendy Stites and art directors Bruce Crone, Mark Mansbridge and Hector Romero)–in the final analysis what makes “Master and Commander” special is the success Weir and his cast achieve in infusing the narrative with human feeling. Crowe strikes all the right poses as Aubrey, but his performance goes well beyond appearances; he invests the captain not merely with virile strength but with a sense of humor and some undercurrents of vulnerability, too. And his connection with the various members of the crew–particularly young Max Pirkis, as Lord Blakeney, with whom he bonds early in the film after the boy suffers a terrible loss (and who gives a lovely, unaffected performance)–carries a charming paternal feel. But the most important relationship is the one he has with his closest friend, the scientifically-oriented ship’s surgeon Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany). Crowe and Bettany worked well together in “A Beautiful Mind,” and they do so again here; the musical duets they play together–Bach and Mozart, especially–symbolize the synchronicity not merely of the characters but of the actors as well. (The period music, elegantly performed, is nicely complemented by a modern score composed by Iva Davies, Christopher Gordon and Richard Tognetti.) On his own Bettany captures well the spirit of a man of the Enlightenment, whose passion for exploration and the rational examination of natural phenomena sometimes brings him into conflict with the captain’s drive to fulfill his mission, whatever the cost. Bettany is also given the opportunity to show Maturin’s extraordinary courage, in a sequence where the doctor literally operates on himself–and he pulls off the episode superbly. The rest of the cast, many of them character actors with faces that are memorable from their first appearances, make for a colorful crew; when one is injured or killed, however briefly he might have been glimpsed, the viewer feels a real sense of loss. (Lee Ingleby, for example, manages to earn some genuine sympathy as midshipman Hollom, who falls under suspicion that he’s jinxed the voyage and ultimately takes a desperate way out.)
“Master and Commander” is not, to be sure, the most profound or subtle drama one is likely to encounter in this season leading up to the year’s awards presentations. It often has the feel of a boy’s adventure story rather than a sophisticated examination of courage, loyalty and patriotism. But it’s been carried off with such aplomb and extraordinary craftsmanship that it sweeps aside any misgivings. Those in search of profundity may be advised to look elsewhere, but those who will be satisfied by a rousing tale, impeccably realized by a director of uncommonly good taste and style, should find this a most enjoyable journey.