Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is a movie that, like Gladiator before it, finds a lot of appeal in resurrecting a genre that was pretty much dead in cinema. As such, despite being well-produced and well-acted, the core of the movie is one of nostalgia – we’ve all seen those classic tales of men at war on the oceans, what might be termed swashbuckling sea-faring adventures. However, unlike Russell Crowe’s earlier film, Peter Weir’s attempt to revive the men-at-sea adventure movie never quite landed with the public – to the point that the genre hasn’t really seen a resurgence, nor has a sequel been produced. Which, to be honest, is a bit of shame. Master and Commander isn’t quite as powerful an experience as it could be, but it is – like the ship on which it is set – well built and sturdy.
Perhaps part of the reason that the movie never really caught on comes from the fact that nostalgia for these old naval tales calls for something a bit lighter and more boisterous than the rather grim and depressing world that Weir presents to us here - even I associate the genre with some sort of noble escapism, while Weir is fixated on presenting life at sea with all the horrors that come with it. There’s painful surgery and amputation, conspiracies among the lower ranks about the weaker and more insecure members of the officer class, brutal discipline ordered by (rather than, as traditional in escapist tales, executed upon) the lead character. It lends the movie a sort of blunt honesty which perhaps shocked some people – I think it’s fair to say that the public associate naval nostalgia more with the fantasy of The Pirates of the Caribbean than the reality of Master and Commander.
And, to be honest, some of the film is heavy going. Trapped on an ageing vessel with dozens of other men should feel claustrophobic, but it lends the movie a sort of dour atmosphere that is only briefly lifted when the crew go ashore in the Galapagos islands. It’s quite an accomplishment – Weir is able to create a version of life on a British man of war which actually feels quite authentic. I’m sure that there are countless little departures from reality, but it certainly looks and sounds like something that could have plausibly happened and that all the little touches are very carefully researched and prepared.
The other side of that coin is that the plot seems to be almost episodic. Sure, the pursuit of a French vessel terrorising the waters provides an over-arching plot, but the sequences themselves seem to be almost a sequence of anecdotes that don’t necessarily flow into each other (the ship is ambushed; the ship is stranded; the crew visit the islands). This approach might be a tad more forgivable were the movie a bit briefer, but they feel slightly extraneous as the movie pushes toward two-and-a-half hours.
That said, there’s a lot to love here aside from the almost authentic feel. Russell Crowe makes a dapper leading man, here cementing the notion that he is the sort of swashbuckling actor that Hollywood has been missing for several decades now. He manages to give a bit of depth to Captain Aubrey, even as he has great fun playing what is essentially an archetype. The presence of Paul Bettany as the Captain’s closest friend (and musical partner) as well as the ship’s medic works well – Crowe and Bettany have a natural chemistry, as anyone who has seen A Beautiful Mind can attest. Some of the best moments in the movie put the two at odds – mostly in a conflict between rationality and tradition – while there is always a deeply-seated respect present between the pair.
Weir choreographs the movie skilfully. The combat sequences are utterly gripping - when hand-to-hand combat is involved, there’s none of the romanticism of classic films: characters don’t fight one-on-one, four of them gang up on the ship’s doctor; the two crews don’t confront head-on, they engage in ambushes and subterfuge. Even the combat between ships is well directed, although there’s really only so much you can do. The sound design is incredible. You have to hear it to believe it, the surround sound mix is fantastic.
Weir also avoids the temptation to widen the film’s scope. There’s no chance to get to know the enemy crew, for example – they are separated by a few hundred metres of water, but that might as well be the entire ocean. There’s no attempt to introduce us to the cast on land – Weir seems to ask us to get to know these men as they are naturally. There’s no discussion of what life was really like for any of them back in Britain, because – as Aubrey outlines at one point – Britain isn’t their home, this ship is.
Perhaps Master and Commander was a victim of its own honesty. It is remarkably blunt about the fact that it wasn’t all (if you’ll pardon the pun) plan sailing for crews in those days – it refuses to let itself get caught up in nostalgic and romantic notions. In many ways, life on a ship like that was hell – and putting children into the middle of it, even if they have no place else to go, seems like a horrible act. Perhaps that isn’t what the audience was expecting when they were promised a swashbuckling sea adventure starring a Russell Crowe in a nice white waistcoat, but it’s to Weir’s credit that he gave us something so well-developed when it could have been so light and disposable.
Filed under: Non-Review Reviews Tagged: | A Beautiful Mind, films, gladiator, Jim Sturgess, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Movies, non-review review, nostalgia, paul bettany, Peter Weir, review, romanticism, russell crowe, Way Back