A British warship plays a game of cat and mouse with a French warship during the Napoleonic times.
“Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” is movie of master class story telling, sweeping spectacle, and easily one of the finest nautical themed films ever made, helmed by a true Hollywood elite, Peter Weir (“Picnic at Hanging Rock)”. He brings this movie that's almost entirely on one boat in the water to life. We follow Lucky Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe, “LA Confidential”), the master and commander of the mighty British warship, acutely named The Surprise. Jack is a brash but noble captain always looking for adventure and action but also keeping his crew's safety in mind as the events and enemy come into fruition.
The only opening credit we get is that it's 1805, set during the Napoleon wars, it sets the mood perfectly by saying 'the seas are a battlefield.' And with that it opens to the crew of The Surprise, surrounded by fog, silence pounding in the sailors heads as they hear ghostly noises on the calm sea, only the slightest sounds of the water ripples licking the ships belly resonate through the thick air. Then one sailor, through his telescope believes to have seen a ship and orders the crew to brace for an attack, but alas there is no attack. Only when Jack comes to see if the sailor had made the right call (to which he politely says he has) but is ultimately unable to catch a glimpse of anything, just as Jack turns his back he hears a faint sound through the fog and takes one more look...the heavy air is lit up with massive red lights, outlining a formidable enemy ship, Jack screams for all to get down, and they scramble to run away from this menace before any more damage is done. It's such an exhilarating way to start the film, set the pace and introduce the audience to the enemy, this is the ultimate game of navel cat and mouse, and it's a must see for everyone.
Any other year and this film probably would've taken home most of the awards that it was nominated for (2003 was a sweep year for Return of the King), it's an amazing feat of filmmaking and it's good to know it did not go unrecognized. The cinematography (of which it did win for) is astounding, everything is filmed on location or an actual set of a ship, nothing is false and the camera is it's own character, giving life to the seas brutal unforgiving nature, the Galapagos islands, the only segment of the film to be on land, looks other worldly in a fantastic way, and while on land the viewer feels a sense of uneasiness as time is not on the crew's side, the phantom ship of the French army is always on the back of the mind, and when it appears in view from these islands, the effect is chilling and haunting. When our other main character Dr Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany, “A Knight’s Tale”) who is out collecting new species of animals for research (his real passion), he suddenly views from afar The Acheron, the villainous French warship, and with a stunning long shot and an eerie soundtrack it makes for one of the greatest shots in any movie that I have seen.
The way the camera gets intimate with the crew is remarkable, the close up shots of sea warn men and their companionship (or lack thereof for some characters) it truly feels like a family, and with no where to go tensions raise and the drama never lets up. The naval battles are few, but that only makes them that much more satisfying to watch, this whole story is a cat and mouse game between two ships, each scene steadily crescendos from the one prior, slowly and surely, and very methodically, like the work of a true professional, Peter Weir gradually builds up the crew and the opposing force, all while reminding the audience that there is going to be a mighty final battle. And when that final battle comes, the viewer is shaking with anticipation, and is rewarded ten fold with an excellent swashbuckling naval battle that still hasn't been matched.
As me and other fellow Truth Mythian Seth watched this rousing sea adventure, we both came to the same conclusion, "remember when Russell Crowe cared?" With the exclusion of “The Good Guys” Crowe has been striking out with real turds of movies and his performance has slacked as of late to say the least, but not in Master and Commander, it may just be from a strong competent director that brought such a great performance to screen, or (as I believe) Crowe loved this character and story and bled his own DNA into captain Jack Aubrey, only his performance in “Gladiator” could this character be rivaled, he blends into the brash captain and is almost unrecognizable. Of course it could also be he is matched by the woefully underrated Paul Bettany, whose performance here is simply his best as the ships lead doctor and part time zoologist, the chemistry between these two leads are what brings everything full circle, when these two are alone together playing music is when they are at their most vulnerable and real. Not only is the audience getting a high stakes naval thriller, but also we get characters who are truly fleshed out, even the minor crew characters have a voice and bring everything to life. One side story involves a crew member who is believed to be cursed as no rain has fallen on the ship in a week, and his struggle with that fact. Another shows the youngest of the crew dealing with an amputated arm, and becomes a true badass by the end. It's the characters that bring this story to full effect, and it's obvious that Peter Weir knows that without great characters the story can fall flat, and he spends every moment with meticulous detail to create a fully realized world on just the fragile wooden boards of this sea vessel, The Surprise. It's also a feat creating a villain without ever spending any time with them, because our time is with the crew of The Surprise, and if they’re not physically interacting with the villain than neither is the audience, we only see what they see and all we know is that the phantom French ship is the ruthless enemy and it must be defeated, the mystery or lore surrounding this ship is all that is needed to get a grasp of the stakes at hand, and it works incredibly well, fully realizing the task at hand for the British crew.
Overall Master and Commander is truly one of the greatest, if not the greatest story of ships at sea, Ron Howard should've taken some notes. The cat and mouse between the British ship, The Surprise and the enemy French ship, The Acheron is simple yet wholly exciting and not one minute of it's extended runtime is wasted. One sign of a wonderful film is not noticing time, not checking the clock for the end credits but rather dreading that moment and wanting to stay with captain Jack Aubrey and Dr Stephen for just a bit longer. Peter Weir is at his best here, which is saying a lot because he's always at his best, this film is a fully realized and very exciting from start to finish, not a moment could be considered boring or slow. The characters are written to their fullest capacity and the performances from the great actors are nothing short of amazing. The battles are big and satisfying, and ultimately rewarding, and the quiet moments are often intimate, with mystery and also exciting and humorous as we watch the crew deal with this long quest of hunting down the enemy. I really don't have enough good things to say about this instant classic, other than if you haven't seen it, watch it right away, and the same can be said if you have already seen it, watch it again.
I give Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World 5 stars out of 5.
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