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Master and Commander
War/US/English (Japanese subtitles)/138mins
Starring: Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, James D’Arcy
Director: Peter Weir


‘ Tis a special film indeed where the leading man can strut around shouting things like "Hard to larboard, Mr Warley! Luff, luff, and shake her!" without producing howls of derision from the audience. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is a swashbuckler in the old sense of the world, but one that has a thoughtfulness, craft, and modern technological execution that levitates it to the top of the genre and opens it to a non-swashbuckling audience.

The film begins with its own Private Ryan moment when the British frigate HMS Surprise is ambushed by the French privateer Acheron. We are thrown into bloody, scary, intimately observed battle as the larger French ship nearly demolishes its quarry. The English escape through a guile that we learn to be one of the characteristics of their salty captain.

It is 1805, Napoleon has most of Europe, Britain is fighting with its back to the wall and HMS Surprise is charged with defending British interests in the oceans around South America. After the ambush, the Surprise’s captain, Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), resolves heroically and against common sense to pursue the French ship and stop it from creating havoc in the British commercial fleets in the area. The chase gives us the tried and trusty episodes of sea-fiction: the high seas, the rounding of the cape, battles, amputations, and the doldrums.

The film moves in the middle part on the relationship between Crowe and the ship’s doctor Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), a sort of thinking man’s version of Star Trek’s Kirk-Spock relationship. Both men can talk philosophy and endearingly pass the woman-less evenings by playing the violin together. The story and characters are drawn from Patrick O’Brian’s epic series of Maturin/Aubrey novels and some of the quality of the acclaimed books carries over.
I cannot judge the accuracy of the depiction of life at sea, but it is utterly convincing. And you have got to love a sea-faring yarn which has, without a shred of self-consciousness, someone taking a pot-shot at an albatross.

Review by Chris Page

 
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