Dir: Peter Weir. US. 2003. 129 mins.
One of the season's biggest productions is also one of its most intimate. For all the effort and expense that went into recreating an English battleship in the Napoleonic Wars, Peter Weir's thrilling film of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin characters plays out mostly in the cramped quarters of the HMS Surprise with only a brief rest for both characters and audience on the Galapagos Islands. There are no farewells from Portsmouth or arrivals in the New World. From the opening shots to the end credits, we are with the crew on the Surprise and we can't get off.
Indeed Weir's great achievement here is to have painted such a fascinating portrait of life at sea in wartime. He depicts the hopes, friendships, anxieties and divisions in the crew, who were often away from home for years at a time, against the vast backdrop of the South Seas. Within minutes of the opening, he has instilled in the audience the overpowering sense of isolation the crew all feels.
The combination of this rich attention to detail and atmosphere on board, some well-acted characterisations and a fast-paced pursuit story (taken from O'Brian's tenth book The Far Side Of The World) delivers a satisfying adventure movie which boys and men around the world will lustily consume and which women will admire. Although there is not a female character in sight and a good deal of blood and gore, it's a good-natured, old-fashioned romp which should draw in families over the upcoming holiday season and ensure that the risk taken by 20th Century Fox and partners Universal and Miramax was worthwhile.
Box office results will be muscular, and, depending on the levels of competition in markets around the world, could reach the peaks of two other recent sea-faring blockbusters The Perfect Storm ($325m worldwide) and Pirates Of The Caribbean ($600m to date).
Central to the appeal of Master And Commander is Russell Crowe, the Oscar-winning Aussie whose unlikable demeanour off screen is repeatedly offset by his magnetic presence on it. Playing the powerful and principled Captain "Lucky" Jack Aubrey, Crowe again proves that he is unequalled when it comes to playing intelligent, commanding men. As his friend, the scientist and doctor Stephen Maturin, the charismatic Paul Bettany is an ideal foil, all brain to Crowe's brawn and dignity.
Weir needs Aubrey and Maturin to be played by dominating actors just like the crew needs them to be dominating figures on board the ship. Their resolve, education and strategies are the difference between victory and defeat, between life and death, in the relentless pursuit of the French privateer Acheron.
The film opens with the Surprise being caught offguard by the Acheron off the coast of Brazil. Sustaining considerable damage, it manages to escape in the fog and retreats to repair its wounds. Immediately we meet some of the crew - 13 year-old Lord Blakeney (Pirkis), who loses his right arm in the encounter; the dependable First Lieutenant Pullings (D'Arcy), Aubrey's superstitious manservant Killick (Threlfall), the indecisive Midshipman Hollom (Ingleby) who is despised by the men, carpenter's mate Nagle (Bryan Dick) and his best friend Warley (Joe Morgan) etc
Overcoming a violent storm as they round Cape Horn, the doubts of Maturin, a disgruntled and homesick crew and a long period of windless drifting, Aubrey eventually catches up with the Acheron at the Galapagos Islands where the final showdown begins.
Weir keeps it very simple: it's all about the chase and the only other plot points emerge from onboard politics and the friendship between Aubrey and Maturin. We never see the enemy, just as the crew of the Surprise never do, and we are given no glimpse of any other locale but the ocean itself.
Fans of the O'Brian books will be excited to see such a solid realisation, while moviegoers around the world will find pleasure in such a skilfully crafted spectacle. If Weir were to score his fourth directing Oscar nomination for the film, it would not be undeserved.
Prod cos: 20th Century Fox, Universal Pictures, Miramax Films.
Worldwide dist: 20th Century Fox.
Exec prod: Alan B Curtiss.
Prods: Samuel Goldwyn Jr, Peter Weir, Duncan Henderson.
Scr: Weir, John Collee, from the novels by Patrick O'Brian.
DoP: Russell Boyd.
Prod des: William Sandell.
Ed: Lee Smith.
Mus: Iva Davies, Christopher Gordon & Richard Tognetti.
Main cast: Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, James D'Arcy, Edward Woodall, Chris Larkin, Max Pirkis, David Threlfall, Billy Boyd, Lee Ingleby.