Published Nov 01, 2003It's almost unfathomable: 200 years ago, 30 men living on the ocean for months at a time, where all needs, not only for food and water but entertainment, science and war, are accommodated in a tiny, floating city. Battered in battle? Tough all repairs must be made on the fly (or on the water, as it were), in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, where land, supplies or even a bath are weeks of sailing away. It is in this world that Australian director Peter Weir (The Truman Show, Fearless) sets Master and Commander, the story of a British warship fighting over the South American coast with the naval forces of France.
The film, set during the Napoleonic Wars, opens with the crew of the HMS Surprise, and its captain, "Lucky" Jack Aubrey (another Aussie, Russell Crowe), in pursuit of a faster, better armed French war frigate, which they chase down the coast of the Americas. Aubrey is an old-school man of honour; despite the fact that they've sailed beyond the limits of their assignment, he simply won't let it go. At his right hand is landlubber man of science Stephen Maturin (Crowe's Beautiful Mind co-star Paul Bettany).
Master and Commander opens with the first encounter between the Surprise and its French foe, during which the wooden British ship is soundly rousted. It's a bold move that immediately gets the audience on the side of Crowe and his ragtag seafarers; immediately they are the underdog, limping into an unfair fight with an air of righteousness.
It is in this moment that Master and Commander makes its deftest move, transforming itself from action and bluster into a thoughtful and considered period piece driven by character, dialogue and the drama of circumstance over exploding cannons and rafter-swinging pirates. Particularly well drawn are Captain Aubrey and Maturin; the former is a product of Lord Nelson's honour on the high seas; the latter is a naturalist more interested in exploring the Galapagos Islands than in expanding the King's empire. The conflicting ways of leading their men and the value of the mission they've embarked upon lends great heft to the chase and flee action that the film could be reduced to.
It's no surprise that Master and Commander works, given that Peter Weir is an underrated and accomplished director. His attention to detail is what sells this effort, whether it's the sound of the creaking wooden ship, the complications of on-ship repairs, or bartering for food and supplies at local ports, all are beautifully executed without coming off as extraneous exposition. It's this naturalistic ease with which he directs that keeps this narrative on the straight and narrow. Not only does Master and Commander do great justice to a tradition of seaworthy pictures, its one of the most accomplished Hollywood films of the year in any genre. (Fox)