Crowe once again ‘masters’ another epic

Ted Pigeon

The previews for “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” make the film look like a more historically inclined “Pirates of the Carribean.” It has been mistakenly marketed as a huge action epic with cannons blazing and plenty of dueling, of which the film has plenty. But the styles of storytelling couldn’t be any more different. The makers of “Master and Commander” aren’t interested in glamorizing its action or relying on it.

They’re interested in the characters and the story, in presenting this massive ship and its crew like they may have been. As this movie plays out, we don’t feel as though we are watching a movie; rather we are apart of it, as if it’s real. “Master and Commander” isn’t so much a movie, as it is an experience.

The film is based on the exploits of novelist Patrick O’Brian, who has written several novels about the characters introduced in the story, which is set in early 19th Century at the time of Napoleon’s conquering. The novels focus on the expeditions of the HMS Surprise and its captain, Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe).

This film, specifically based on O’Brian’s first novel in the series, “The Far Side of the World,” tracks Aubrey’s pursuit of the French ship, The Acheron, which assaults Aubrey’s ship in the film’s opening moments. From there, Aubrey and his men go after The Acheron, utilizing several different strategies for attempting to outsmart the captain of the much larger French privateer.

It is a rather simple story that might seem to be heavy on action, but it’s actually more slanted toward the quieter moments of getting to know the captain and his crew. Besides Aubrey, the other key character in the film is his best friend Stephen (Paul Bettany), the ship’s surgeon. The two men couldn’t be more different in assuming their roles aboard the vessel, but nevertheless, their relationship runs deep despite their often different views. Their scenes together are always compelling for this reason, and it’s wonderfully realized by Crowe and Bettany, who both give great performances. For those of you who don’t remember, Bettany played the role of the roommate of John Nash in Ron Howard’s “A Beautiful Mind,” opposite Russell Crowe.

But these aren’t the only characters we come to know. Director Peter Weir makes sure that many of the crew members are more than just faces telling this story. There are several intimate moments among various members of the crew as the story goes on. Despite being so different, all of these men share the common bond of camaraderie as members of a ship. There is not one performance that isn’t convincing in this film, and each time the ship is in some kind of jeopardy, be it by the assault of another ship or a severe storm, we care about what happens to each of them.

One of the great aspects about this movie is that it is so compelling. And this isn’t just a credit to the actors, but also to Weir, who is no stranger to historical drama. Every aspect of the film’s production is meticulous in detail.

The soundtrack mostly features the rumbling of ocean waves and the creaking noises of the lumbering ship that Aubrey and his men occupy. The ship itself is an actual ship built solely for the production of the film. Weir knows that the best way to create the feeling of being on a ship is not through computer effects or on a sound stage.

There is a certain majestic feeling captured in many of the film’s sequences of pursuit when the camera pulls back to reveal the two ships gliding on the ocean’s surface, each with the mission to destroy the other. “Master and Commander” is full of these kind of brilliant moments. These scenes added up, combined with an amazing performance by Crowe, amount to a magnificent experience. One of the best ways to measure a film’s success is how well it sweeps you into its world and makes you forget that you’re watching a movie. And that is precisely what “Master and Commander” does so well. It has a certain authenticity to it that few historical movies come close to achieving.

That authenticity is a result of every aspect of the film coming together so perfectly. The film’s epic scope, brilliant performances and attention to detail make it hard not to compare it to the work of the great David Lean, director of such masterpiece epics as “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Bridge on the River Kwai.” In all its breathtaking glory, “Master and Commander” deserves a place alongside such epic masterpieces.