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Master and Commander:
The Far Side of the World

Do you remember a time when the French were considered a military threat? Hard to believe, perhaps, but such a fact fuels the plot of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.

Culled from two separate novels (hence the unwieldy title) and tweaked to change the threat from us to the French, Peter Weir's latest definitely has a literate feel to it. Though chock full of action, it's really more of a character study, with a plot that rides a tide of story and just sort of ends. But it doesn't really matter, because Weir has sucked you so thoroughly into this world that it's not just the ending that sneaks up on you. No, it's also the idea that this leisurely paced tale is also one of the most satisfying movies of the year.

Russell Crowe anchors the picture as Captain Lucky Jack Aubrey. Larger than life only when he has to be, Aubrey commands the HMS Surprise, on a mission to capture a French vessel, the Acheron, in the Napoleonic Wars. And really, that's all this movie is about, easily summed up in title cards before we zoom in to the early dawn on deck.

Searching for an enemy ship in the early 19th Century seems more a game of blind man's bluff on a large Atlantic Ocean, and so Weir focuses most of his attention on life at sea. For canny reasons, we rarely even see the enemy as anything other than a shape in the fog, dubbed "The Phantom" by an increasingly superstitious crew.

Over the course of an hour or so, Weir delivers vignettes that seem only tenuously connected by taking place on the same ship. But each one builds our understanding of the men and boys sailing on the Surprise, with a domino effect. 13-year-old Lord Blakeney (Max Pirkis) loses an arm early on, but never loses sight of his duty and ambition. A grizzled old sailor gets a metal coin screwed to his skull (ah, 19th Century medicine…), and when he recovers, begins feeding the fears of the crew with ravings that get more and more sane.

Friendships are put to the test, no more so than that between Aubrey and the ship's doctor, Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany). The most crucial of relationships in the movie, this odd pairing allows for some of the film's themes to be most brightly illustrated. Maturin is at odds ideologically with the whole concept of war, since it often reduces him to little more than a butcher. But he also prods and challenges Aubrey into being the best leader he can possibly be, always wary of power corrupting.

The crew follows "Lucky" Jack without question, but Weir, working from his script co-written by John Collee, carefully exposes how hard it is to be worthy of such loyalty. Aubrey does deserve the devotion, but a lesser film (and a lesser actor) would not have allowed room for question.

In the heat of battle, it's clear that Aubrey has to make agonizing decisions. Though the film doesn't linger on them (because life can't), the Captain lives with the consequences. One such involves a choice between trying to save a crewman washed overboard, who earlier provided a clue for how Aubrey could defeat the Acheron. With a broken mast the sailor's only apparent hope for survival, it also becomes clear that the ship will sink unless they cut it loose. Aubrey shoulders the responsibility; his axe is the first to fall, and the drowning man's best friend steps up to help.

It's an emotionally stunning moment, one of many provided by the film. The timing couldn't be more perfect, either. Riding a renewed popularity of pirates (dismissed in a line of dialogue), it's interesting to see what the real heroes of the time were doing. But also, we need to see the price of leadership presented simply, and perhaps, inspiringly.

Regardless of his offscreen personality (and who really knows, anyway?), Crowe continues proving himself a movie star who is also a fine actor. Eschewing excessive antics, his Aubrey runs the gamut of emotion. Forget Vin Diesel; this is a man.

Countering Crowe, Bettany underplays with a delicacy, offering a man of peace who still has no less steel. A scene with Maturin removing a bullet from his own belly surely proves it, and the genuine warmth and affection between the two main characters leaps off the screen. By the power of two fine actors, we understand how men can disagree and still have a deep respect for each other, another lesson our culture could stand to learn.

But Master and Commander is too good a film to just beat us over the head with such themes. In the thick of things, they're not obvious. By the end, though, they appear in the consciousness just like a great ship out of the fog.

You'll be glad you took the ride.


Derek McCaw

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