The film’s title comes from the names of two of 20 novels in the nautical adventure series by British writer Patrick O’Brian. These relate the exploits of British Captain Jack Aubrey and his ship’s surgeon, Stephen Maturin, the levelheaded ego to the captain’s passionate id. Aubrey’s a glory-seeker during the 19th-century Napoleonic wars, when the British fleet was the only thing that stood between the dictator and world domination.
In the opening scenes, his men scurry up and down the rigging, snooze below deck in their podlike hammocks and peer through spyglasses into the fog for other signs of life. At dawn, a midshipman (Lee Ingleby) spies the faint shape of a frigate on the horizon. The alarm is sounded and the men jump to their positions with tight British discipline. The actors playing them are unknowns except for Russell Crowe, and considering his singular stature as an actor, his appearance on deck as Captain Aubrey is unavoidably dramatic.
Thankfully, director Peter Weir (“The Truman Show,” “Dead Poets Society”) and his co-screenwriter, John Collee, keep Crowe’s Gladiator-style bluster to a minimum; here, most of the billowing comes from the stormy gales encountered at sea and the cannon volleys of the French ship Aubrey’s chasing. Natural and at ease in his gold piping and brass buttons, Crowe inevitably recalls his countryman Mel Gibson in “Mutiny on the Bounty,” along with countless other heroes of high-seas movie legend. In terms of recreating the period, however, all prior swashbuckling movies are blown away by the cannons of “Master and Commander.”
Though the trailers have touted the action and special effects, the battle scenes are frantic to the point of distraction. What the movie does well is illustrate existence aboard a tall ship, from the low comic relief around the captain’s dinner table to the high-minded principles of the surgeon (Paul Bettany). Seafaring was brutal stuff. Necessarily there are moments of violence that aren’t for the squeamish. Yet they are handled admirably. When an adolescent must lose a limb after an early exchange of cannon fire, Weir fights the urge to send syrupy string music over the operating cot.
“Master and Commander” will likely surprise fans of the action-adventure movie. Its principal attention to life reminded me what’s been missing in the genre in recent years. In the Civil War film “Gods and Generals,” we learned what it was like to listen to a general and be blasted to the gods, but were left wondering how it felt to march on shoeless feet with an empty stomach. “Master and Commander” gets right down in the slop, the only other appropriate S-word for the brown, lumpy matter the common sailors ate. Their lot looks so unpleasant, with all the scrubbing, climbing, hoisting, rowing, bailing, flogging and drowning, it’s no wonder that in those days they had to clobber a man over the head and drag him on board to get him to do it.
You might have to reinstate that practice to get a grumbling, attention-deficient friend through some of the scenes. It takes nearly the enitre movie for the crew of The Surprise to catch their daunting quarry, The Acheron, a new class of man-of-war. The other ship travels at 14 knots, an impressive speed in those days. That’s the future, a British officer marvels, providing one of the movie’s many charmingly quaint moments. It’s these glimpses into the thrill of seafaring and discovery that make “Master and Commander.” These men lived on the edge of the world, some for glory and some just to keep from drowning, and you feel their emotions in every swell of this oceanic tale. **** S
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