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Published November 28th, 2003 | by Jay Richardson

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World Review

Classification: 12A Director: Peter Weir Rating: 4/5

An old-fashioned yarn of seafaring derring-do, Master and Commander throws together the best action sequences seen on many a voyage with enough gunpowder-heroism and engaging characters to create a blustery epic.

After the impish irony of Pirates of the Caribbean, Master could have looked a humourless old seadog. But director Peter Weir’s unapologetic paean to British maritime power and evocation of the Nelson spirit is so all-enveloping that such considerations are quickly swept overboard.

As a huge ship moves silently across a misty sea, titles proclaim that this is April 1805, Napoleon is seeking to grab all of Europe, and “oceans are now battlefields”. Below decks, crew and cannons sleep silently. But the watch thinks he’s seen something so the captain is awoken. Russell Crowe – for it is he – strides briskly on deck as Captain Jack Aubrey and peers purposely into the fog. Suddenly, there’s a burst of orange and the deck erupts into chaos.

Watching the HMS Surprise struggle to evade its shadowy assailant, men screaming and huge gashes ripping through the timbers, one is struck by how real everything seems after the CGI overload of recent years. Despite the action barely leaving the ship for the film’s entire 138 minutes, the Surprise is a set in itself, as with the French dreadnought Acheron pursuing them at every turn, the crew scurries over the sails with choreographed skill, traversing the globe – from the coast of Brazil to the storm-tossed waters of Cape Horn, south through ice and snow to the far side of the world, then to the remote shores of The Galapagos Islands (becoming the first feature film ever to film there).

If, like me, you are unfamiliar with Patrick O’Brian’s 20 Captain Aubrey novels, this film apparently combines the first and tenth books. For those uninitiated in the UK, this is essentially a seagoing Sharpe: Aubrey commands the same level of devotion from his men as Sean Bean’s portrayal of Bernard Cornwell’s hero on TV, but on a grander scale and with less bodice-ripping – there are no female characters to speak of.

What remains is the strong platonic bond between Aubrey and the ship’s doctor Stephen Maturin, (Paul Bettany, who played opposite Crowe in A Beautiful Mind). A committed naturalist and bookish humanist, Maturin is the audience’s enlightened surrogate in the film, allowing us to indulge, and indeed revel in, ‘Lucky Jack’s’ devotion to getting the job done at all costs. Though they share a love of playing the violin and cello, the two are often at loggerheads and this forms the central dynamic of the narrative, particularly in their contending influence over 13-year-old midshipman Lord Blakeney (Max Pirkis). That’s not to say the doctor isn’t prepared to get stuck in when the limbs are flying and perform a bit of brain surgery, or even extract a bullet from himself after a slightly contrived Rime of the Ancient Mariner moment, which itself follows the sailors’ somewhat bizarre Jonah story preoccupation.

But it’s hard to blame them for their superstition. The “phantom” Acheron seems relentless, but Aubrey and his doughty crew have some cunning sleights of seamanship up their sleeves and these, plus one of the greatest storm sequences committed to celluloid, make the film an enjoyable romp. Though principally Crowe and Bettany’s picture, there’s solid support, particularly from Pirkis, who after losing an arm in the initial skirmish grows in stature as the film progresses. Crowe, who has built his career on muscular, brooding rebels, here plays something of a middle manager par excellence, completely devoted to king and country and retaining a believable respect from his men. By contrast, James D’Arcy is somewhat absent as his second-in-command, 1st Lt Tom Pullings, and the ending’s final twist is a bit weak, but these are minor gripes and Master and Commander remains a great action adventure. It’s little surprise to hear the Surprise will sail again soon in Master and Commander: The Battle for the Thames and Master and Commander: The Caspian Sea Pirates and their Kazakhstanian Money Men.

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