Master and Commander : The Far Side of the World [8/10]

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

It … is of the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ships’ cables and hawsers. A Polar wind blows through it, & birds of prey hover over it. Warn all gentle fastidious people from so much as peeping into the book — on risk of a lumbago & sciatics.
–Herman Melville, Letter to Sarah Morewood, September 1851

Moby-Dick is generally rated one of the greatest American novels ever written  – but while Master and Commander will have to settle for being merely one of the best American movies of the year, the Melville quote isn ’t entirely inappropriate. This is a full-blooded all-hands-on-deck maritime tale so convincingly briny that more sensitive viewers may need time to find their land-legs on leaving the multiplex: an ideal viewing environment would be a North Sea ferry ’s on-board cinema at the height of a raging gale.

The esteemed Patrick O ’Brian wrote a sequence of twenty novels featuring the early 19th-century exploits of intrepid Capt. Jack Aubrey and his great friend, ship ’s medic Dr. Stephen Maturin, and this big-screen adaptation conflates two of them  – hence that unwieldy, broken-backed title. But everything else in the script (by Weir and Scots former medic John Collee) us admirably sturdy, to-the-point and no-nonsense, with barely a minute of slack over two-hours-plus.

Though outwardly watertight in every aspect of direction, technical detail and performance, there is one troubling aspect to the hidden structure of M&C:TFSOTW (M&C for short). The two novels on which it is based pit a vessel of the gallant British fleet  – here the 28-gun HMS Surprise  – against a foreign opponent: an American ship in one book, a Spanish in the other. In the film, the  ‘baddies ’ are magically transformed into the French. Given the filming timeframe, this is surely accidental  – but it ’s an unfortunate one given Hollywood ’s current demonisation of all things Gallic in idiotic enterprises such as S.W.A.T.

This issue won ’t be picked up on by M&C ’s many viewers worldwide, of course, most of whom be swept along by what is a terrifically entertaining example of Hollywood product (via 20th Century Fox, Universal and Miramax) at its most professional and mature, sans tacked-on romance, sans bells and whistles of any description. In retrospect, however, it ’s surprising how little actually happens during these 139 minutes: the  ‘Surprise ’ spends most of its time eluding the more-powerful French vessel Acheron, and most of the drama plays out on and below decks. But when action does erupt, it does so in stirringly full-blooded style as Aubrey and Maturin plunge into the literal cut-and-thrust of hand-to-hand combat.

It ’s the attention to character, however, which elevates M&C beyond the level of more flippant swashbucklers such as Pirates of the Caribbean. As in A Beautiful Mind, the bulky Crowe and the spindly Bettany make for a very engaging odd-couple  – the difference being that Bettany ’s character doesn ’t turn out to be a figment of the hero ’s fevered imagination this time. And while Aubrey/Crowe powers the plot forward, it ’s Maturin/Bettany who is really the heart and soul of M&C: scholarly, rational, skeptical and, when performing an operation upon himself or wielding a cutlass in battle, surprisingly brave. The pair are backed up by a strong, almost entirely male supporting cast in which Max Pirkis (as a very youthful midshipman) and David Threlfall (shamelessly OTT as the irascible ship ’s cook) make the strongest impact.

Behind the camera, credit is due to Russell Boyd, whose widescreen cinematography thrillingly captures a world of washed-out blues and greys, with even the copious gouts of blood oddly drained of colour. And Iva Davies ’ music, like the film itself, is a textbook example of how to create an epic mood without hitting the audience over the head with thudding bombast. That everybody seems to  ‘get ’ what the film is about is of course mainly a reflection on the  ‘captain ’ of this doughty venture, Peter Weir  – an occasionally erratic director who, in even his best films, has been prone to the odd lapse into clich or crudeness (the final montage in The Truman Show, for instance.) Here, buoyed by the solid-oak of O ’Brien ’s structure and research, the daunting logistics of what must have been a tricky production seem to have focussed his mind as never before. Even the notoriously tough author would probably approved  – as might the real-life Aubreys and Maturins, so realistically does the film present every detail of old-time naval life. Well, almost every detail. The three classic features of the Royal Navy were, as commemorated in the title of a Pogues LP,  ‘rum, sodomy and the lash. ’ Two out of three ain ’t bad.

by Neil Young

3rd December, 2003
(seen 27th November : UGC Cinemas, Boldon Colliery)

USA 2003 : Peter WEIR : 139 mins