Batten Down The Hatches

In 'Master and Commander,' Peter Weir creates an old-fashioned sea adventure that'll blow you away.

November 14, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Aquatic elation? Oceanic exhilaration? Whatever you want to call it, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World gives audiences the opposite of seasickness. Like adventure readers of yore, adults will leave yearning to find a frigate and ship out. Contemporary kids who didn't devour Treasure Island in middle school and the Hornblower series in high school may be tempted, for the first time, to consume an old-fashioned swashbuckler or naval history, or at least leaf through a Tall Ships coffee-table book.

Devoid of camp or gimmickry, grand in scope and pleasingly gnarly with detail, this movie follows a risk-taking 19th-century British skipper, Captain "Lucky" Jack Aubrey of the HMS Surprise (Russell Crowe), as he attempts to snag a superior French vessel, the Acheron.

The director, Peter Weir, and his cowriter, John Collee, start in the middle of everything - including Patrick O'Brian's series of 20 Jack Aubrey novels (Master and Commander is No. 1, The Far Side of the World is No. 10), and 1805, the third year of the Napoleonic Wars, when the British fleet became the main obstacle to Gallic domination of Europe.

The filmmakers don't rally viewers 'round the Union Jack in the manner of old-fashioned colonial anthems. Making the Yankee-built enemy ship French instead of American (and borrowing heavily from book No. 7, The Surgeon's Mate), they deliberately skimp on context. They hope we'll identify with British sailors and marines as men of heart and courage, ready to follow their leader around storm-tossed Cape Horn and into the sights of a warship that outmans and outguns them.

At the core the movie is still about defending King George III, and a little king-and-country rabble-rousing might have lent some welcome heat to the opening sequences. But with the help of their gung-ho cast, the filmmakers create an atmosphere at once approachable and authentic. Crowe turns Jack into a winning figure. It's good to see this actor smile again; he swings his ample frame around the rigging with unbridled glee. He radiates a quality that can't be faked: the relaxed authority of a man among men. Warm and intuitive yet unbending in his seaman's code, Crowe's Lucky Jack makes his crew feel part of a fated circle of good fortune.

Jack's best friend and ship's surgeon, Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), offers a tactful modern counterpoint that propels fresh breezes through the salty air. Even when he questions the captain's thirst for conquest and insistence on discipline, the script never resorts to moralism or political revisionism. (A good thing, too: any anachronisms would have rocked - no, scuttled - this boat.)

Bettany plays Stephen with a stature equal to Crowe's and a delicacy that offsets the star's hardiness. Whether they're accompanying each other in string duets of Mozart and Boccherini (Jack plays the violin and Stephen the cello) or debating shipboard ethics, they harmonize handsomely - partly because Crowe and Bettany suffuse their characters with fraternal feeling. Jack acts differently with Stephen than he does when he's at table, entertaining his officers with ribald humor and deadpan jokes.

Screenwriter Collee defines the center of the film as the relationship between paternal and maternal figures: between the "thrusting, all-macho fighting man," Jack, and "the more reflective ... peace-loving" Stephen. But the way Weir has fleshed out the action, you don't think of the two lead friends as mother and father, exactly. They're more like embodiments of the ship's fighting spirit and conscience. They share authorship of the HMS Surprise's mind and soul.

Stephen hopes to become the first man of science to explore what would become the Darwinian treasure trove of the Galapagos Islands; Lucky Jack can't find the time to make his dream come true. That on-again, off-again quest becomes the film's best running joke and the source of its strongest emotion.

For Weir is as much a naturalist of human behavior as Stephen is of exotic animals. Gradually, he draws you so far into his bygone universe that you feel a part of the crew. And you experience being in the crew as being part of a vast living organism, contracting and expanding, ever-altering in texture and coloration. As you come to know the supporting characters (strictly through action), they pair up like matched limbs or vital functions.

Weir handles the aristocratic midshipmen superbly, especially Max Pirkis as young Blakeney (his slightly hardened cherub look would make him a perfect Oliver Twist) and Max Benitz as his older friend, Calamy; the two

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