Master and Commander does for wooden sailing ships what Das Boot did for submarines. It gives the audience a gritty, detailed, and carefully researched view of daily life and deadly combat aboard a ship of Nelsonís navy. Directed by Peter Weir (Gallipoli) , this is quite simply the best movie that has ever been made about the age of fighting sail.
Master and Commander is based on a series of books by Patrick OíBrian that follow the adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey of the Royal Navy, and his shipís surgeon and best friend Dr Stephen Maturin during the Napoleonic Wars. The plot, loosely based on the tenth book in the series, is simple enough. Aubrey, commanding the frigate HMS Surprise, is ordered to pursue and destroy the Acheron, a much more powerful French warship that is headed for the South Seas, where it will menace Britainís whaling fleet.
The sea battles in this movie are visually stunning, and at times, brutal. The audience can practically feel the impact of the French cannonballs as they shatter wood and men. (The sound effects are quite impressive.) Boarding actions are nothing like the Hollywood swashbuckling films of old. Men do not swing from ropes or fence with swishy little foils. They use pikes and heavy cutlasses in a practical, serious manner. The chief impression the battle scenes in this movie give is of murder in a confined space.
Between battle scenes, Master and Commander immerses the audience in the day to day existence of Aubrey and his crew. The scenes of life below decks are frequently claustrophobic. Even when shooting the Surprise in daylight and from a distance, Weir still manages to make it look crowded by putting large numbers of men in the rigging and on deck. By paying careful attention to small details, Weir brings his wooden world to life. The costumes, hair, and makeup are all very well done. Many men show scars of previous injuries, and the crew varies widely in age, from a twelve year old midshipman to some very grizzled old salts. These actors look like sailors, not extras from a pirate movie.
The performances are excellent. Russell Crowe, who plays Jack Aubrey, has the gravity to play a leader of men, and he looks good in period costume. Both qualities are rare in leading men these days. Paul Bettany delivers a standout performance as Stephen Maturin. Fans of OíBrianís novels may wonder how well these actors portray the characters in the books. Your reviewer has read all the books, and his opinion, this movie is superbly cast.
Fans may also wonder how closely the movie follows the plot of the book. The answer is not very. For one thing, in the novel The Far Side of the World, which was tenth in the series, Aubrey was ordered to pursue an American Frigate. The film makers worried that this might alienate the American audience, so the enemy is French, and story takes place in 1805, before the war with America began. Other liberties have been taken with the plot as well. But on the whole, the movie is true to the spirit of the books. The friendship between Jack and Stephen forms the movieís dramatic core, and the movie, like books, succeeds in evoking the atmosphere of the period, and the romance ( and occasional terror), of the sea. For those who enjoy spectacular historical drama, this may be the movie of the year.