It takes a brave soul to make a straight-faced movie in 2003 with old-fashioned, seafaring-adventure dialogue, where the commanding officers are always starting sentences with, “Come on, lads!” or some such bewhiskered variant.
It helps, in the case of Master and Commander, that such nautical camaraderie is channeled through Russell Crowe as Capt. Jack Aubrey — who, at least sounds comfortable saying stuff like that without a trace of camp. (Picture, for instance, Fred MacMurray making the same declarations — as Hollywood gave us on occasion — and you’ll realize how far wrong this sort of thing can go.)
I’m grateful that the script managed not to burden Crowe with Charles Laughton’s classic Mutiny on the Bounty outburst, “You call yourselves seamen?” I shudder to think how that would play with a modern audience, but I’m sure the temptation must have been great, since the suddenly … uh … physically expanded Mr. Crowe has taken on something akin to Laughton-esque proportions, looking not unlike old Chuck’s Capt. Bligh. (Indeed, perhaps the reason Aubrey’s H.M.S. Surprise has so much trouble catching up with the French ship Acheron is due to his weighing them down.)
Then again, Paul Bettany as Dr. Stephen Maturin — Aubrey’s sidekick, best friend and occasional conscience — sports a haircut (and a detached scientific manner) that kept reminding me of Henry Hull in Werewolf of London. So there seems a kind of (possibly unconscious) air of old Hollywood at work here. Whatever the case, director Peter Weir has created an old-fashioned adventure film on the high seas with modern actors and effects, but which doesn’t depend on any postmodern sense of superiority to put the movie over. And, most of the time, Weir’s pulled it off.
The film’s major problem (or I should say awkwardness) is its structure. The storyline — drawn from two novels in a popular series by Patrick O’Brian — is really quite simple. The year is 1805, and the Surprise has been sent to the northern coast of Brazil to try and thwart the Acheron‘s efforts of spreading the Napoleonic wars to the Pacific. Ordered to either destroy the ship or “take her a prize,” Aubrey engages in a relentless game of cat-and-mouse with the enemy ship, despite being outclassed in every department by her. That’s really all the there is to the story line — but plot is only a small part of what Master is about.
The film is much more interested in being a character study and, to a certain extent, an examination of life aboard an early 19th-century ship. As recently as the 1940s, Sir Winston Churchill commented — with more candor than tact, perhaps — that the British Navy ran on “the lash, rum and buggery.” Weir’s command certainly features the first two, but never even hints at the last — hardly surprising in a film that omits that embellishment from the first of O’Brian’s novel’s that “Lucky” Jack Aubrey’s seemingly rampant taste for the ladies has left him with an unfortunate infection. Apart from one scene involving Aubrey giving a Brazilian girl the once-over, a passing reference to women by a couple of sailors, and Aubrey writing a letter to an otherwise unmentioned lady back in England, the crew of the Surprise seems a remarkably asexual lot — which doesn’t work against Master‘s success, and again reinforces the sense of an old Hollywood film.
The movie’s slow build-up proves much more problematic, especially when combined with the occasional odd pauses in the narrative for subplots that probably worked better on the printed page, and the mixed blessing of the bulk of Master cast being relative unknowns. This last component does give the movie a greater air of authenticity, since the viewer isn’t distracted by familiar faces, though it robs Weir of the valuable cinematic shorthand of characters we can immediately identify with or have some sympathy for because the players are already known to us. When Master gets to its first real tragedy — an overboard sailor being left to drown so the ship can free itself from a broken mast — I was only moved in the most abstract manner, because I had no real sense of the victim. This strikes me as especially noteworthy in a film that otherwise did — and with seemingly little effort — engage my concern over relatively smaller tragedies and the outcome of the battle itself. Perhaps this is mere carping, but it made Master seem just a little distant.
Technically, the movie is beyond reproach, and many of Weir’s visuals are so striking, you carry them around with you for days and days after. And there’s no denying the film’s abundance of atmosphere, its seemingly authentic detail, its boatload of unusual touches, which combined make up for any of Master‘s less-successful aspects. Plus, there’s the teaming of Crowe and Bettany; the two play wonderfully off one another — even more so than they did in the overrated A Beautiful Mind — giving the film its heart.
If Master and Commander isn’t quite the “$135-million art film” that Crowe has claimed, it’s still a very fine piece of work — and one that will probably only get better with time.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke