47 FILMS: 25. MASTER AND COMMANDER
HOLLYWOOD – In the latest in our series of 47 Films You Have to See Before You Are Murdered in Your Dreams, Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany star in Peter Weir’s seaworthy Patrick O’Brian adaptation Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.
In a world where there are way too many hyphenated titles and way, way too many sequels, Peter Weir’s fantastic Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is the one that got away. Pirates of the Caribbean will be repeated until you’re seasick but Master and Commander is the magnificent one off, a heroic broadside of a movie.
Based on two of the Patrick O’Brian novels in the long running Aubrey/Maturin series spliced together, the film tells the story of Captain ‘Lucky’ Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) commanding the HMS Surprise and his hunting of the phantom privateer the Acheron in the Southern Oceans. Weir plumbs his source material brilliantly, with almost every character named without necessarily being introduced and with wonderfully observed period detail, from the food to the language. On one level a perfect adventure film, the sea battles are terrifyingly authentic with most combatants killed from flying splintered wood rather than cannonballs and smoke enveloping the scene. But as well as buckling swashes, this is a subtle bromance between the bluff but bright and a tad heavy Captain and his close friend, musical partner and proto-Darwinian the ship’s doctor Stephen Maturin, played by a pitch perfect Paul Bettany.
Whether Weir was uninterested in repeating himself – he is after all the director of such diverse greats as The Truman Show, Dead Poet’s Society, Gallipoli, The Cars that Ate Paris, Witness and the sublime Picnic at Hanging Rock – or the studio was disappointed that they hadn’t got a Gladiator Goes to Sea, Master and Commander 2 never set sail. However, it would be churlish to focus on that.
Weir throughout his filmography has consistently explored closed worlds with their own rules and culture and the HMS Surprise is a perfect setting for him to explore his concerns and Crowe and Bettany give command performances in a well oiled ensemble. Master and Commander is that rarity, an action film which is clever, witty and fantastic fun.