Based on the novels by Patrick O'Brian about the adventures and exploits
of 19th century Navy Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) and surgeon
Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), the needlessly double-titled "Master
and Commander: The Far Side of the World" is an epic seafaring adventure
that looks glorious but becomes a chore to sit through. As a realistic
account of a ship crew in the midst of a war, the film is certainly
successful. There was obviously a gr eat deal of research put into
the authenticity of every aspect, from the design of the sets to the
ins and outs of each job on the ship. However, as a rip-roaring adventure
that captures one's attention from the first frame and doesn't let
go, the picture falters enormously.
The time is 1805, and while the ravages of the Napoleonic War is being
felt between the French and English, Captain Jack Aubrey and his crew
on the HMS Surprise have been sent to the East coast of Brazil to
put a stop to the French privateer Acheron. While Aubrey has a firm,
go-getter attitude, the work ethics of surgeon Stephen Maturin are
notably more reserved. Their differences ultimately mesh well together,
with Aubrey's yin to Maturin's yang, as they form a strong friendship
and a shared passion for music. There is no doubt that the crew of
the HMS Surprise will succeed at their mission, but in order to fight
for their country they must risk losing their lives, not only to their
hu man enemies but to the overwhelming powers of nature.
Directed by Peter Weir (1998's "The Truman Show"), "Master and Commander:
The Far Side of the World" is ambitious in its visual scope, but less
so when it comes to its narrative and characters. The story is a simple
one that lacks movement and complexity. Even at 138 minutes, dishearteningly
little actually occurs, and while there is something of a solution
at the end, it concludes on an empty, unsatisfying note. There is
a small battle at the beginning, a violent storm soon after, and a
larger, albeit anticlimactic, showdown at the end, the collective
screen time of these three action sequences totaling roughly 30 minutes.
The remaining two hours is padded out with lots of talking that doesn't
mean much and half-hearted, one-note attempts at character-building.
The film's languid pacing quickly grows tedious, and the movie itself,
unfortunately, becomes a bore.
Fault most definitely cannot go to the production d esign by William
Sandell (2000's "The Perfect Storm"), authentically replicating both
the internal and external of an early-19th century ship, and the gorgeously
atmospheric, perpetually gloomy cinematography by Russell Boyd (2001's
"American Outlaws"). Some scenes might have benefitted from the use
of long shots to widen its scope, but overall, the movie is an aesthetic dream.
Too bad, then, that all of the impressive work on capturing the visuals
wasn't put to use within a stronger story. The film is all fits and
stops, occasionally jumping to life for a few minutes before settling
back down for another thirty minutes of weak, patience-testing exposition.
The climactic raid of the Acheron pulses with energy and high stakes,
but the storm sequence plays like an afterthought, an inferior version
of "The Perfect Storm" with no follow-through. Coincidentally, and
perhaps tellingly, the best scenes, including the unexpected, haunting
suicide of a midshipman, and a lovely segment set on the luscious
Galapagos Islands, have nothing to do with the heart of the premise.
As a performer, Russell Crowe (2001's "Gladiator") can do no wrong.
He is an acting chameleon who transforms into every character he plays,
and injects his performances with an intensity and humanity only equaled
by Hollywood's greats. As ultra-fine as Crowe is, such as in a quiet
scene where he gives a book to wounded 13-year-old midshipman Blakeney
(Max Pirkis), he cannot overcome the threadbare screenplay and its
depiction of the relationship between Aubrey and Maturin. Their bond
is meant to be the human focal point, but it is sorely underdeveloped.
As the brave but frightened Blakeney, young newcomer Max Pirkis avoids
every temptation to mug for the camera, giving an understated, effective
supporting performance. The rest of the main cast make no impression
at all, fighting an uphill battle to bring depth to roles that simply
aren't there on the written page. It is supposed to be tragic when
some of them perish at the end, but it isn't because we have made
no real connection with them.
Those interested in the experiences of 19th century nautical officers
and warfare may be able to wade through the many slow spots in "Master
and Commander: The Far Side of the World" and have an absorbing time
at the movies. Everyone else, including those expecting a thrill-a-minute
adventure from the misleading trailers and television ads, would be
best to look elsewhere. A small-minded, slow-moving, uneven motion
picture with a huge budget of $120 million, with the end credits arises
the very valid question of whether all the money it took to make this
was really worth it. Nay.
Copyright © 2003 Dustin Putman