Russell Crowe, playing sea-dog Captain Jack Aubrey, climbs the rigging of his fighting ship, his eyes gleaming like an astronaut in deep space. He’s pumped, alive to the moment. That exhilaration courses through Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, a rousing high-seas adventure that sweeps you into another world.
That world has been rendered in vivid historical detail by director Peter Weir, the captain of films as diverse as Gallipoli, Witness, Dead Poets Society and The Truman Show. In adapting two of the twenty novels that Patrick O’Brian wrote about Captain Jack, Weir and co-screenwriter John Collee are faithful down to the splinters in the ship’s wood. Time and place are quickly established: It’s 1805, the Napoleonic Wars are raging, and Lucky Jack, as Aubrey is known in the British Navy, commands the HMS Surprise, with orders to “intercept the French privateer Acheron. You will sink, burn or take her as a prize.”
Weir thrusts us right into the action. The Surprise, carrying 197 souls and twenty-eight guns, is sailing off the coast of Brazil when it spots the larger Acheron and attacks in a dense fog. Superbly shot by Russell Boyd and edited by Lee Smith, the scene makes you feel the rumble of cannon fire ripping through the decks. The Surprise retreats to repair at sea, then heads back out to pursue the enemy.
It’s in the aftermath of battle that Weir introduces the officers, the crew, the lads — some as young as ten, but there’s no hint of man-boy love — who serve as midshipmen. The claustrophobia below decks, where the men must duck their heads to stand, is palpable. We meet the ship’s surgeon, Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), a naturalist who sketches bugs during a stopover in the Galapagos Islands. He also plays the cello, duetting with his friend Lucky Jack on violin during a calm in the storm.
Yes, calm. This isn’t a theme park; it’s a movie with the confidence to let a story build. Bettany (he played played Crowe’s imaginary roommate in A Beautiful Mind) brings a keen gaze and sly humor to the doc. He is a formidable match for Crowe, who continues to astonish as an actor. Aubrey is fair-minded and well liked, and could be as dull as the ship’s bilge water. But Crowe — fierce, funny and every inch the hero — gives a blazing star performance.
Weir stages a storm at sea — filmed in the same tank in Mexico where Titanic was shot — and a climactic battle with the Acheron that will shiver anyone’s timbers. His triumph, though, is in balancing action and character. A babe-free, big-budget film ($135 million) that takes the high road is always a risk. But Master and Commander rides that road to glory.