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Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

By Stephen Lavington on 29 November 2003

Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey/Stephen Maturin Napoleonic naval novels have cult status with a certain sort of reader – pulp it’s OK to like, Bernard Cornwell for the chattering classes – and this film is an almost perfect cinematic rendering of the concept. Entertaining adventure, with an almost obsessive attention to detail and a smattering of cerebral interest. When applied to the swashbuckling subject matter of the novels, this basically works out as ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ for grown-ups.

A helpful caption card points out that the year is 1805 and Napoleon’s wars have turned oceans into battlefields. After this you’re pretty much on your own, thrown into a dense recreation of early nineteenth century naval warfare. The core of this story is sublime simplicity – Captain Jack Aubrey, of the HMS Surprise, accompanied by his friend, ship’s surgeon Stephen Maturin, is ordered to intercept a French privateer, the Acheron, on its way to plunder the British whaling fleets of the Pacific. This takes the form of a long pursuit, down the eastern coast of South America, around Cape Horn and to the Galapagos Islands. A fair journey indeed, but O’Brian’s novels do not skimp on the detail, and the very nature of battles at sea, especially duels like this, was a pursuit of many days ending in short, brutal battle. Peter Weir almost revels in this, making a two- hour-plus film out of a relocated car chase that would have taken up twenty minutes in a Michael Bay picture.

His main concern is not the plot but the atmosphere (a judgement that could equally be levelled at the source books); to create a feel for the period that goes beyond cutlasses and boarding parties, way beyond the rum, governors’ daughters and buried treasure of the average swashbuckler to enter the realm of historical representation. The ships are impressive, as much for the cramped interiors as for their graceful forms, the tone of squalor seems spot on, and several plot-strands deal with the many junior officers (some as young as twelve), the superstitions of sailors and the odd-ball nature of a crew picked up from ports all across the world. The aim is to recreate the feel of a two-hundred strong community at sea, all living in symbiosis with their floating accommodation as much as each other.

It’s very well done. However, this namby-pamby Sealed Knot recreation is ultimately window-dressing to a rollicking Boy’s Own adventure. It’s about duty and country and drinking and fighting and men doing men’s things (but making ostentatious statements about women, just so you don’t get the wrong idea). Occasionally this element approaches farce – when the French ship approaches, demanding that the “Engleesh” surrender it gets dangerously close to ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ – but mostly it’s all good fun. Russell Crowe is not just tolerable, but actually quite good (despite some rambunctious shanty-singing, and the obligatory roar-into-the-face-of-the-storm) and Paul Bettany is brilliant as the scholarly, somewhat distant Maturin (though he appears to be playing him as Antony Stewart-Head). The support is pretty much drawn exclusively from British television, and all do a fine job, with special mention to thirteen year-old Max Pirkis as an aristocratic Midshipman.

It’s not a film of subtleties or a dense emotional drama, and is about as far removed from the regular touchstones of Georgian elegance (Jane Austen, Thackery) as possible. Weir has aimed to concentrate on the pertinent areas of O’Brian’s expertise, the experiences of fighting comrades at sea, and stripped away as much excess history as possible, leaving a substantial residue of John Bull-ish Anglophilia (in a bizarre accident of marketing, the target audience appears to be readers of Eagle comics), somewhat surprising in an industry dominated by Braveheart and The Patriot.

In a world of mediocrity, the temptation is to rave over any film that even slightly exceeds expectations. ‘MaC:tFSotW’ is one of these films. It’s bloody, it’s silly, it’s packed with testosterone and it has some interesting ideas about the validity of seafaring superstition. It’s also well-crafted, well-acted and just plain entertaining.

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By Stephen Lavington

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