Master and Commander

 Master and Commander - The Far Side of the World. is one of the most enjoyable movies I've seen this year.

Based on two of Patrick O'Brian's seafaring novels, Peter Weir's film is much more just a ripping adventure story - there is philosophy at its heart. Russell Crowe plays Jack Aubrey, a swaggering British naval captain during the Napoleonic wars, who is sent to the South Seas on HMS Surprise, in pursuit of a French ship, the Acheron. His best friend is the ship's doctor, Irishman Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), a polymath - interested in botany and zoology, who plays the cello.

The dynamics of the relationship between these two characters provides the fulcrum of the film - the conflict between the worlds of action and reason, predator and healer. In between some very frightening sea battles, in which large cannon balls smash through ship's timbers - conveyed with ear-splitting bone-crunching authenticity, and some awesome sea storms and menacing fogbanks - straight out of Turner paintings - there are contemplative moments as Aubrey and Maturin play duets on viola and cello.

Unlike some of the pantomime pirate movies we've seen lately - this film feels meticulously accurate in its depiction of life at sea in the 19th century. The characters are very well drawn with fine performances from all the cast. There is humour and tragedy. Several of the crew members - including an angelic-faced midshipman Lord Blakeney (Max Pirkis) - are just children. There are digressions into cranial surgery, navigation, shipboard superstitions and an exploration of wildlife in the Galapagos islands.

The dialogue sounds utterly correct. After dinner, when Aubrey speaks of having served under Lord Nelson, one person asks: "may we press you for an anecdote?" Later someone says: "Let's complete our business here" rather than "let's go." Beautifully filmed with a score that includes several excerpts from Vaughan Williams - Peter Weir has served the Patrick O'Brian novels well. Josephine Siedlecka

first posted: LONDON - 1 December 2003 - 330 words

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