Magnificent, gallant, and stylishly ponytailed Captain Jack “Lucky” Aubrey (Russell Crowe) commands a British vessel during the Napoleonic Wars, more specifically, in 1805. As if to denote his courage and enthusiasm, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World opens with inspiring images of the endless ocean and brilliant sky. And then, the captain on deck: Jack is awesome, the ship is glorious, and at this point, the film looks for all the world like it will be, as Empire magazine terms it, “Gladiator on the high seas.”
That’s not necessarily a good thing, though Empire presents it as such. Neither is it a precise thing, as Jack is never quite beset with the same sorts of horrors as Crowe’s mournful, martyred Maximus (the role for which he won his first Best Actor Oscar, and for which he is much adored for all kinds of reasons, not least being how excellent he looks in a skirt). Still, the comparison speaks to the desire of audiences to see that movie again—excitingly noisy, stunning to see, epic in scope.
Peter Weir’s film is all of this and less. And that lessness is a good thing, as far as it goes. For in the end, the movie, based on the popular novel series by the late Patrick O’Brian, seems overwhelmed by its mighty mythos, and becomes yet another film of its type, that is, a high seas escapade where men swash and buckle, hands tend to cannons with names like “Jumping Billy” and “Sudden Death,” and crews huzzah for their commander, who is always right. When the movie allows for deviance from such straight-ahead expectations, when it suggests reveals self-doubts, bad decisions, and distressing reconsiderations, it is more interesting than when it heaves ho for the thrill-kill.
Such close dimensions make thematic sense in a huge-ship movie, what with so many men and boys (and they are all men and boys) crammed into such a tight space. These include the leathery, boozy deckhands as well as inexperienced officers, like 12-year-old Lord Blakeney (Max Pirkis), who loses an arm (which is digitized away, Lt. Dan-like, during one altercation, such that the blond moppet spends the rest of the film endeavoring to demonstrate his manhood). Jack likes to think of himself as a leader following the example set by that “master tactician and man of singular vision,” Lord Nelson. Moreover, two centuries ago, the likelihood that anyone would return from such a deed was significantly smaller than might be today, with perils arising from all kinds of dark horizons, rough weather, and boisterous waves.
The most immediate threat in Master and Commander comes from the French (wouldn’t you know—somehow the insistent untimeliness of the tale is twisted into timeliness, at least with regard to nationalistic prides). At he movie’s start, Jack’s HMS Surprise (introduced as bearing “28 guns, 197 souls” off the Coast of Brazil), is attacked by a mysterious and superior French frigate, the Acheron. So bewildering is this ship that Jack and his lads take to calling it a “devil ship,” thus ramping up the metaphorical stakes if not the actual ones (say, scurvy, drought, starvation, and falling overboard, among other difficulties).
Annoyed that he’s been surprised (on the Surprise), Jack decides to hunt down the Acheron, though the latter is faster, better equipped (“She’s out of our class, a 44-gun ship!”), and sturdier (“Yankee-built, sir, in New York!”), and carries more men. This takes him and his crew on a lengthy pursuit (some 12,000 miles, around the Cape of Good Hope, where the waves are daunting), through a series of encounters and near-encounters, always overmatched and leading to one old-salty observation: “We’re fish in a barrel!”
Along for the ride, more or less, is Jack’s best friend and occasional conscience, Dr. Stephan Maturin (Paul Bettany). Their relationship is easily the film’s most complicated and least resolved. And at its best, the film focuses on their peculiarly masculine intimacy, based in mutual respect, friendly competition, and appreciation for chamber music (they play violin and cello duets). The friends come into conflict when Jack’s focus on the French ship becomes obsessive, even Ahabian, such that he refuses to fathom the spectacular dangers posed by the elements as well as the Acheron.
Besides, the doctor, being a scientific sort, with notebooks and records and aspirations toward Darwinian fame (though, of course, the naturalist is only four years old at this moment), wants to swing by the Galápagos Islands to collect choice specimens. This manly melodrama includes the men (as in, rabble) as well as the young child-officers, particularly that cute little Blakeney, who can’t help but fiddle with the little bugs that Stephan has pinned and catalogued, but who is the son of a man to whom Jack owes some honorable debt. They don’t overtly struggle for the boy’s attention, but the film uses him, rather clumsily, as the mediator for their interests—as if they cannot be reconciled, or even managed in one mind at one time.
This opposition is reductive and tedious, except in its tenderest moments, which recall that Weir’s work can be supple and strange. While it will come as no surprise that all-boy Jack’s not crazy about Stephan’s inclinations (“We do not have time for damned hobbies, sir!”), he does value and admire the doctor, not to mention need him, as Stephan has worked near miracles keeping some of the men alive. Still, in this film, the derring-do must take precedence. This suits Crowe’s enduring reputation for broadly boyish behaviors, but it’s less well integrated with Weir’s penchant for excavating cultural fears and political conflicts. The result is a strangely flattened adventure story.