Released a mere three months after the other great sea-bound movie of 2003, “Master and Commander” could not be further in spirit, gravitas and demeanour from the swashbucklery and general nonsense of its cousin “Pirates of the Caribbean.” That is in all but the first name of their protagonists. Scallywags be warned, the world of Jack Aubrey and his adventures in the Napoleonic wars is gritty, dangerous and above all, deadly serious. And while Jack Sparrow instilled a genre long dead with a new, drunken swagger, director Peter Weir and actor Russell Crowe too were sailing into waters uncharted for decades, the high seas notorious for the storms they can wreak on filmmakers. But in reality, the adaptation of Patrick O’Brian’s popular novels provides the sort of material that both the director and star love to get their teeth into.
Combining plots and ideas from several O’Brian stories, “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” tells the story of “Lucky” Jack Aubrey (Crowe) and his crew of the HMS Surprise, playing a dangerous game of cat and mouse with French enemy vessel The Acheron, a ship with larger sails and more guns. Central to the plot is Aubrey’s relationship with the ship’s surgeon and amateur naturalist Stephen Maturin played by Paul Bettany. One a man of war, the other of science, their love for music connects them as their philosophies separate them. For Weir, always ready to take up challenging material – think of “Picnic at Hanging Rock” or “The Truman Show” – this duality in nature of the plot allows him to stage life on a 19th Century marine vessel in a manner of realism that has never been achieved on screen before. On the one hand, the thrills and deadly blasts of cannons, chase and sea battles, on the other, the monotony, strict routine and tragic deaths that regularly occurred. For Crowe, “Master and Commander” provides yet another opportunity to hone the sort of thinking-man action-hero skills he’s been polishing since “Gladiator.” An equally on-form Bettany makes a good compliment, trying to see some sense amongst the carnage.
It will be easy to approach “Master and Commander” with the wrong expectations and feel let down at its close. The sense of fun and daring adventure we have come to expect from similar picture has been all but sunk and the extended interludes between action pieces may well have you bored to death. At times it is hard to maintain interest and it becomes blindingly obvious that Bettany’s character is used repeatedly as a plot function simply to ask silly questions of the hierarchy aboard. That and to ask for explanations of the plethora of nautical terms scattered very liberally around the place. To dismiss the film on these grounds however would be to misunderstand the talents of Peter Weir and while the different elements don’t always gel, the film still provides very solid entertainment and reflection for its more patient viewers who will be duly rewarded. In any case the look of the picture, the cinematography, production design and visual effects are simply stunning and deservedly picked up an Oscar nomination or two.
To complement the large number of classical and traditional pieces of music featured live on screen as Crowe and Bettany play the violin and the cello respectively, three composers were hired to write original score, namely Iva Davies, Christopher Gordon and Richard Tognetti. How it took three composers to come up with such a small amount of score is beyond comprehension, however what the trio achieved is an unobtrusive score that fits exceptionally well around the source music. In the film the score goes mostly unnoticed but on album, combined with music by Bach, Mozart, Boccherini and Vaughan Wiliams, it is a highly enjoyable listen. The score highlight is the opening track “The Far Side of the World” but it is still placed in the shadow by the classical music which is what listeners will also recall from watching the film. For the score alone, this soundtrack is not recommendable.
How much you will enjoy “Master and Commander” will depend on how much longevity in drawn out sequences you are willing to tolerate. For a throwback to stirring entertainment of a more serious nature (as well as for fans of the books actually), it will represent over two hours of great filmmaking with Peter Weir stretching back to the glory of his 80s and 90s success. And even though it is possible to enjoy both films equally, for most of those swept away by the slick “Pirates,” this will represent the most unimaginable bore.
Music heard on Album
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