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Master and Commander   A-

20th Century Fox

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Peter Weir
Writers: Peter Weir, John Collee (based on novels by Patrick O'Brian)
Cast: Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, James D'Arcy, Edward Woodall, Chris Larkin, Max Perkis, David Threlfall, Billy Boyd.

Review by Rob Vaux

It's been a good year for swashbuckling. The old-fashioned charms of the swordbelt and chandelier had lain dormant for far too long... then suddenly, they seemed to be everywhere. Pirates of the Caribbean took care of the pulpier end for us, and now comes Master and Commander, a more historically conscious but no less entertaining endeavor from Peter Weir. Based on Patrick O'Brian's popular novels, it presents a juicy tale of seamanship and derring-do so robust than no one but Russell Crowe would dare star in it. Crowe plays Captain Jack Aubrey, an epitome of the natural machismo that defines the actor's image. He's gifted with a sleek ship, a wily foe, and the kind of crew that would cheerfully follow him off the edge of the Earth: the perfect makings of a terrific adventure.

Weir has a penchant for naturalism that works very well amid outdoor settings. Master and Commander demands such a gift in order to be effective, and the director doesn't disappoint. He and DP Russell Boyd paint the screen without embellishment, letting the deep gray-blues of the ocean and the soft rustle of the sails transport us to another time. It's 1805: all of Europe lies at Napoleon's feet. Only England stands against him, buoyed by the sort of steely naval captains whose names always seem to be Jack. It was a manly era, full of manly men so secure in their masculinity that they didn't mind wearing silly hats. Aubrey's orders send his ship the HMS Surprise to the coast of Brazil, where a French privateer threatens His Majesty's interests. Armed with a bigger, faster vessel and more armaments, the French are moving towards the Pacific, threatening to open a new front in the war. But Aubrey is a poor loser, as his disastrous first encounter with his foe demonstrates, and he has no intention of letting them just waltz away unscathed.

The plot is actually little more than an extended game of cat-and-mouse: encounters with the "phantom ship" are offset by extended periods of life onboard the Surprise. We see little of the French crew, save through the distant view of Crowe's spyglass... and the thunder of their ugly guns. Master and Commander is concerned mainly with the effect the hunt has on Aubrey and his crew, and Weir ensures that the results are riveting. By centering things on the ship, he expands its confines until it truly seems to be a universe unto itself. O'Brian's rich historical details bubble to life in every scene -- the sailors' routine, the shanties and superstitions, the grim realities of 19th-century navies -- and Weir's passion for the material keeps it all sharp.

Crowe's presence is as welcome as it is expected, and few others could portray Aubrey with such a perfect set-jaw strength. His primary foil (besides the barely visible French) is his ship's surgeon, Stephen Maturin, well-played by Paul Bettany. The two men are intellectual equals (Aubrey's military mind is offset by Maturin's conscience and scientific curiosity), have a similar sense of honor, and know each other well enough to playfully challenge their respective expectations. Bettany and Crowe worked together on A Beautiful Mind, and their obvious chemistry makes the on-screen friendship warm and believable. Watching their verbal spars over the officer's mess or their infrequent musical duets together (both characters play instruments) is one of Master and Commander's greatest pleasures.

But don't think that the film is just dull details and Masterpiece Theater. As an adventure picture, Master and Commander is as exciting as they come. A Boy's Own grin seizes us every time Aubrey spies the enemy, and our heroes' obstacles are presented with the same timing and intelligence as the rest of the film. Weir stages some spectacular sea battles as the Surprise and her foe jockey for supremacy, yet he never loses sight of the underlying material amid the noise (some of the wide shots could have been pulled directly from O'Brian's covers). Indeed, so much of Master and Commander roars so brilliantly that the climax itself feels a bit underplayed -- one of the few places where success is less than total. That a movie can love its characters, respect its audience, and still deliver the goods is a welcome reminder of what makes this medium so invigorating. Event films need not cater to the lowest denominator, and "action-packed" doesn't have to mean "devoid of thought." If you have any doubts on that front, Master and Commander will resoundingly silence them.

Review published 11.13.2003.

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