4 stars (out of 4)
As magnificent as a high-masted 19th-century British warship, as explosive as a Napoleonic-era ocean battle seen above the cannon's mouth, Peter Weir's "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," with Russell Crowe as Captain Jack Aubrey, is probably the best movie of its kind ever made.
Among period sea sagas, this film stands supreme - just as the Patrick O'Brian novels that inspired it are justly regarded as the finest historical sea-war stories ever written. "Master and Commander" takes its titles and plot from two O'Brian novels, the first and 10th in that brilliant author's 20-book series about dashing Jack Aubrey of Lord Nelson's British Navy and his friend and ship's physician (and Irish rebel), Dr. Stephen Maturin - roles played to perfection by Crowe and Paul Bettany.
But the film has action and spectacle enough to fill half a dozen more books. The main story in "Master" charts Aubrey's relentless pursuit in his warship, Surprise, of a larger French dreadnought vessel, the Acheron, from Brazil, around Cape Horn to the Galapagos Islands and a final, deadly reckoning.
It's a wild and wondrous chase, shot mostly on the actual locations, with great storms smashing the topmasts, waves lashing the jibs and 28-cannon fusillades raking the decks on the way to a grand, boiling climax. In the lulls between, we can relish the salty camaraderie and virile chat of chums Aubrey and Maturin, the idealistic physician/naturalist who, under bloody conditions, has to heal himself. We can also follow the fortunes of Aubrey's colorful, surly or brave crew, including an effete, doomed "Jonah" named Hollom (Lee Ingleby), faithful 1st Lt. Pullings (James D'Arcy), sweaty dental aide Higgins (Richard McCabe) and incongruous stripling shipmates like 12-year-old boy Lord Blakeney (Max Pirkis).
Director/co-writer/co-producer Weir and his crack team capture the look and feel of the novels, their wealth of detail, intimacy, soaring poetry and sea-wind gusto. Meanwhile, Crowe makes Aubrey his man, seizing the role with as much force and inevitability as any actor since Connery won Bond.
Crowe gets almost everything about O'Brian's Aubrey but his beefsteak portliness. He's comfortable with the powdered wig, the salty humor and grace under fire, and he's equally at ease swinging a sword or bowing up Mozart and Bach sonatas on his violin. (Musician Crowe plays them himself.) No Crowe fan should be disappointed, but no O'Brian fan should be disappointed, either - though both novels are treated more as inspirations than outlines. The Surprise even has a different ocean nemesis, French instead of American.
Weir lets himself fall under the spell of O'Brian's lofty vision and gorgeous prose, his witty and eloquent re-creations of early 1800s seafaring lore and sea battles, and that makes all the difference. Weir, an Australian, is a great filmmaker, especially fine with literate, psychological adventure sagas (such as "Gallipoli"). Here, he gives us everything we might want: overpowering vistas, beautifully dressed ships, staggering action scenes, a crew full of pungent seadogs, pace, sweep and two lead actors who play off each other with fiery panache.The romances in this movie, as in many great sea stories, are platonic, between the men and the sea and between Aubrey and Maturin. Bettany played Crowe's imaginary roommate in "A Beautiful Mind," and he's a real gadfly again here, constantly goading the more conservative and traditional captain, acting the wily humanist to Aubrey's consummate military pro. "Master and Commander" may be unique among sea-battle movies in actually cutting a female character and romance from the novel; O'Brian's dark love story of luckless Mrs. Horner isn't needed here.
Like O'Brian's novels, the movie pleases us on many levels and leaves us wanting more. It's rare that a big-scale, big-budget movie - one that involved three studios (Fox, Miramax and Universal) and a gargantuan budget - so satisfyingly distills most of the best qualities of a piece of fine literature, rarer still when a movie can so fully catch the spirit of its source while discarding so much of the letter.
But what makes "Master" a cause for true celebration is its cargo of sheer lusty entertainment, rousing enough to please and thrill those huge audiences utterly unfamiliar with O'Brian and his world of tall ships, stout fellas and the high bright sun of the British ocean empire. After "Master and Commander," that sun won't set again for quite a while.
"Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World"
Directed by Peter Weir; written by Weir, John Collee, based on the novels "Master and Commander" and "The Far Side of the World" by Patrick O'Brian; photographed by Russell Boyd; edited by Lee Smith; production designed by William Sandell; music by Iva Davies, Christopher Gordon, Richard Tognetti, with selections by Mozart and Bach; produced by Weir, Samuel Goldwyn Jr., Duncan Henderson. A 20th Century Fox release of a 20th Century Fox/Miramax Films/Universal Pictures presentation; opens Friday, Nov. 14. Running time: 2:19. MPAA rating: PG-13 (language and violence).
Captain Jack Aubrey - Russell Crowe
Dr. Stephen Maturin - Paul Bettany
Barrett Bonden - Billy Boyd
1st Lt. Thomas Pullings - James D'Arcy
Hollom - Lee Ingleby
Joe Plaice - George Innes
Mr. Hogg - Mark Lewis Jones
Captain Howard - Chris Larkin
Mr. Higgins - Richard McCabe
Lord Blakeney - Max Pirkis