MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD
***1/2 (out of 5)
November 14, 2003
Russell Crowe as CAPTAIN JACK AUBREY
Paul Bettany as DR. STEPHEN MATURIN
James D’Arcy as 1ST LT. TOM PULLINGS
Edward Woodall as 2ND LT. WILLIAM MOWETT
Directed by: Peter Weir
BY KEVIN CARR
Before it was released, I heard “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” being compared to “Titanic.” Aside from some business decisions (like delaying the release from summer to Christmas and bringing in multiple film companies to complete the funding), that’s not a very valid comparison at all. It’s like comparing “2001: A Space Odyssey” to “Star Wars” because they both take place in space.
Sure, both “Titanic” and “Master and Commander” take place on the high seas, and both of them had ballooning budgets (with “Master and Commander” topping off around $135 million), but that’s about where the similarities end.
“Master and Commander” takes the audience aboard the HMS Surprise commanded by Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), who has earned the name “Lucky Jack” because of all the tight spots he’s been able to get himself out of. Set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, Captain Jack has been given the orders to hunt down and sink any French vessel preparing to take war to the shipping lanes of the Pacific.
During their search, the sailors come in contact with a new French ship that is bigger, faster and has more firepower than their own. Against overwhelming odds, Captain Jack pursues the ship with hopes of capturing it. At first, the crew stands behind him but as the days drag on and they start taking casualties at the hands of the impressive French warship, the support for Jack wanes.
Even the ship’s surgeon (Paul Bettany), who is Jack’s closest friend, warns him that he is waging a dangerous battle and his overzealous attitude could lose him his crew as well as his command.
I’ve never read the Patrick O’Brien novels (and I would suspect that most people seeing this film haven’t either), so I can’t really engage in a basis of comparison. However, I did read somewhere that in the original book, the ship they were chasing was an American vessel instead of a French one.
Although Patrick O’Brien purists would criticize this change, it is a completely understandable one. The filmmakers would have to be insane to have a “blow up an American ship” hit the theaters this Christmas. Of course, the choice of using the French as the enemy is just an extra bonus, considering how tenuous the American and French relationship has been as of late.
There is no love story in “Master and Commander,” which isn’t a bad decision, actually. It is refreshing to see a film that doesn’t force a love story for the sake of marketing. Almost every single frame of the film takes place on a ship in the middle of the ocean. There just aren’t any women around, except for a very brief stop in Brazil when the ship’s crew is tempted by local prostitutes in a nearby dinghy.
Th only other real appeal to the typical female demographic would be a sexy star. I know that Russell Crowe is considered a heartthrob to some women, but in this film it appears that his heart might be throbbing a little too much under the stress of the tremendous amount of weight he has gained. If Crowe doesn’t watch himself, he’s going to join Steven Seagal as one of the chubbiest leading men around. Not even the centuries-old bulky military uniforms could hide Crowe’s girth.
This is definitely an epic film, and it deserves to be seen on the big screen – not just to experience the full grandeur but that on the small television screen it might become dull. Part of the beauty of the film is the sweeping shots of the ocean as the ships climb over crests and waves. All of this would be lost on video, whether letterboxed or not.
Russell Crowe is still able to be captivating as a leading man, although he’s softer in this than his powerful performance in “Gladiator” or “L.A. Confidential.” The supporting cast for the crew of the ship is excellent with few recognizable faces (save a hobbit from the “Lord of the Rings” films) but plenty of spirit. Paul Bettany actually steals the show as the conflicted surgeon whose true dream would be to sail the seas as a naturalist explorer rather than a meatball surgeon on a warship.
I don’t know whether “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” is worth the $135 million spent on it, or whether it warranted three separate companies (Fox, Universal and Miramax) to throw their weight behind it. But it is still an exciting film. With the exception of a 15 or 20 minute spread in the middle that bogs down a bit (which is to be expected from a flick like this), it should keep the audience on the edge of its seats.