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Master and Commander

  Master and Commander
Russell Crowe teaches Max Benitz about "good touch, bad touch."

© 2003, Universal
All Rights Reserved

The year is 1805. Napoleon has captured most of Europe and he has Britain directly in his cross hairs. The H.M.S. Surprise is an English naval warship sailing the Atlantic looking for French ships to intercept. Led by Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), the crew maintains a well-oiled working atmosphere due to Aubrey's diligent leadership and his crucial friendship with the ship's medical officer, Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany). Sailing the desolate Brazilian seas, the Surprise comes across an errant French warship and immediately begins a chase that will take Aubrey to unseen corners of the Pacific and to the brink of his own leadership abilities.

It seems to me, the goal of Peter Weir's "Master and Commander" (IMDb listing) is to submerge the audience in the world of the early 19th century battleship. Showcasing the cramped living spaces, the deafening explosions, and the adolescent nature of some of the crew, I would say, mission accomplished. "Master" is an impeccably designed motion picture that sets lofty goals for itself, and accomplishes 90 percent of them. It's an often rousing adventure movie, in which each participant is forced to exercise their brains more than their brawn if they are to come out victorious. Weir, having already touched this type of historical production with his 1981 film "Gallipoli," takes great pleasure in the world of cannonballs, cryptic naval dialog, grimy sea dogs, and the discreet associations that keep the Surprise afloat. Weir is an accomplished and respected director ("The Truman Show," "The Mosquito Coast," and "Fearless" to name a few), and by taking his time with the massive material, he produces a picture that does a noble job at providing thrills and detailing a little historical context for the interpersonal relationships that make up this lengthy story.

The film is based on a handful of installments in Patrick O'Brian's 20-volume series of novels on the exploits of Aubrey and Maturin. Twenty volumes, now that's a lot of dramatic and character development to cover, but Weir and screenwriter John Collee do a significant job trying to get into the heads of Aubrey and the crew. Weir does have some trouble making the story flow seamlessly. "Master" stops and starts frequently, developing an episodic delivery to each of the film's major sequences. It is frustrating that the natural flow of events becomes disrupted so easily, when the cast is so game to perform, and Weir has limitless technology.

And while Weir's trademark intense character study is rewarding when it comes time to actually care about these characters, the main story arc of the picture, the cat and mouse game with the French ship, is the most invigorating element of the film. Weir stages the chase with considerable filmmaking aplomb, creating mystery with the Atlantic fog and refusing to show the point of view of the French army. Weir also conveys the glacial speed of the chase; these aren't the latest in speedboats mind you, but massive war ships dependant on wind and manpower. Weir investigates the realities behind these battles, and how they weren't always fought to the death, but rather, until the resources dried out. The battle sequences are selections of tremendous filmmaking, and should test the limits of the local multiplex's sound system.

If there's any actor who could fill the sizable boots of Aubrey, it is Russell Crowe. An actor with a wellspring of authority and composure to draw upon, Crowe is pitch-perfect in the crucial role of the captain. The audience needs to feel the compulsion of the crew to follow a man on what many would consider a fool's quest. Crowe achieves that element without uttering a word. The real surprise of the production is Paul Bettany, a sweaty, aloof supporting actor from such films as "Dogville" and "A Knight's Tale." Bettany isn't a terribly strong actor, but his work here as Maturin is an agreeable mixture of medical disapproval and military understanding. Bettany is a nice counterpart to Crowe's authoritative stance, and they both make good on the picture's central idea, that the friendship forged between these two men is what really drove the heart of the H.M.S. Surprise.

Filmfodder Grade: B+

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