Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (November 12/03)
As a rule, I'm not a big fan of historical epics. Character development and plot are often pushed aside in favor of meticulous set design and a sense of spectacle that is often more overwhelming than anything else. Though Master and Commander initially threatens to be exactly that sort of film, it eventually becomes a rousing and thoroughly engaging adventure movie.
Based on the historical novels by Patrick O'Brian, Master and Commander follows the exploits of a 19th century British ship and her crew - with the formidable Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) at the helm. After his vessel is attacked by a French ship, Aubrey makes it his personal mission to go after and capture the perpetrators. Though Aubrey is clearly a stern and disciplined captain, his jovial friendship with the ship's doctor (played by Paul Bettany) proves that there's more than a little humanity in the man.
Master and Commander kicks off with a battle between the British and French vessels, which is followed by Aubrey's crew attempting to survive severe weather conditions. This is all before the film has bothered to introduce any of the characters to us, so it's essentially akin to watching someone play a war simulator. It's all so overpowering that it really doesn't bode well for the remainder of the movie, but thankfully, director Peter Weir does eventually slow things down. When the film stops being about cannon battles and bad weather, that's when it becomes involving.
There are a lot of very talented actors in this cast, but it's not until the movie virtually stops dead in its track that we finally get to know these characters. Though he initially seems to be a tough-as-nails disciplinarian, Aubrey is eventually revealed to be someone that cares a great deal for his men and often puts their safety first. But above all, he's a great captain and Crowe does a fantastic job of getting into Aubrey's skin; this is certainly a much better performance than his Oscar nominated turn in A Beautiful Mind. Even better is Bettany, Crowe's Beautiful Mind co-star, who is absolutely convincing as this 19th century doctor. The film's best sequence finds Bettany's character forced to operate on himself after being shot; Weir smartly keeps the camera tight on Bettany's face, and his expression says so much more than a garish close-up of the wound ever could.
Some mention must be given to the astounding production design, which is incredibly detailed and ensures that the film is always interesting to look at. The interior of Aubrey's ship - from the crowded crew's quarters to the ornate senior officers mess hall - almost becomes a character in itself, which isn't all that surprising given how much time the film spends within its walls.
Peter Weir proves to be quite adept at directing action sequences, ensuring that we always know what's going on and who's doing what. But his need to start the story off with a bang proves to be the weakest element of the film, and proves to be more distracting than anything else.