Lowdown: A manly romantic sea adventure.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, or M&C from henceforth, has to have something going for it. It is, after all, a very rare specimen for a film we have been watching repeatedly despite the influx of new releases at our doorstep. Given M&C’s relative young age – it was released in 2003 – its achievement in managing to draw us back for repetitive viewings has only been surpassed by that Rings trilogy.
Regular readers of this blog would recognize me reviewing M&C is a direct continuation of my recent Russell Crowe festivities, with American Gangster and 3:10 to Yuma only very recently reviewed. To that argument I will answer that this time around my main motivation for re-watching M&C was Paul Bettany. You see, M&C belongs to the now extinct series of good films that Bettany took part in (including Wimbledon and M&C itself); since then Bettany has moved on to take part in crap productions like Firewall and De Vinci Code. However, there is a hope that the previously extinct might be revived: I have read they are making a film about Charles Darwin to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin of Species, and Bettany will be playing the role of Darwin the naturalist there. Thing is, in M&C Bettany also plays the role of a naturalist, and just like the Darwin he will soon be portraying M&C puts him in the Galapagos Islands, admiring the versatility of life on board and wondering out loud how it came to be. It is this coincidence that attracted me to re-watch M&C this time around, and to its credit I have to say that M&C gave me the first view ever, as far as I remember, of those incredibly important Galapagos Islands. You may as well say I have re-watched M&C as a tribute to Darwin.
On to M&C itself. Surprisingly enough, given the length of my introduction, it is not a film where Charles Darwin plays a significant role; that part is reserved for Russell Crowe, who portrays a young, fiery and resourceful English sea captain. M&C takes us back to the early 19th century when England and France were at war (ask them today and the people of both nations would give you the impression the war is still going with much force). Napoleon is a big hit that threatens England, and Crowe's mission is to make sure France's circle of influence does not extend to South America.
With the slight exception of venturing the Galapagos, M&C is set entirely on Crowe's battleship as it circles South America in search of its nemesis: a French ship more powerful than Crowe's with a captain as resourceful as Crowe. Sometimes the French have the upper hand, sometimes Crowe has the upper hand; ultimately, it is a battle for supremacy between two masters and commanders, testing their mastery and commandeering skills all the way. We see things only from Crowe's side, as his crew faces a wide variety of challenges (from bad weather to basic survival) and as Crowe deals with them and especially with his ship doctor, Bettany. The way it all goes with its mostly invisible adversary makes for a great metaphor of a man fighting it out with the world in general. Indeed, M&C is a romantization of this theme.
I say romantization because everything is painted with lots of glamor thrown in. The sailboat and everything look real and all, but when you think about it things are not as authentic as they pretend to be; there is no way people would have looked and acted the same as they do in the film. Everything just looks too good to be true, given the harsh conditions: none of the crew has any sexual engagements (the bending down for the soap kind of way, as you would expect on a crowded ship full of men); although there are scenes showing maggots in the food, the food that is on display looks much too good given the lack of fridges; and no one seems to ever need to go to the toilet.
That said, M&C provides quite the adventure. Add some excellent production values, good acting, sets, and DVD mastering and you have yourself a very entertaining package.
Peter Weir, the eccentric director of M&C, has been known to make excellent films (Witness) and films that everyone seems to be very opinionated about (Dead Poets Society). In M&C Weir has managed to create something in between the two extremes, an entertaining film that you will still remember after putting its DVD back in the shelf.
Sound quality: M&C has to be praised for its sound, so I will do so here. In a very uncommon way, it features some very quiet moments of dialog and smooth sailing, some well recorded classical music, and some heavy pounding gun fights. The dynamic range on display is rare in its quality and depth, making M&C a true home theater feast.
Favorite plot theme: The ship’s sailors regard one of its officers as a Jonah that brings them all bad luck. It’s so bad that the officer starts believing it, too.
Overall: On its own, I would rate M&C at 4 stars. However, given the way it has attracted me to view it again and again, I’ll upgrade my score to 4.5 out of 5 stars.