Running Time: 138 mins
Rated: MA 15+
Knowing that Patrick O'Brian was considered one of the greatest historical novelists of the 20th Century, I tried on more than one occasion to plough through one of his series of books about the adventures of Jack Aubury. I failed. After turning another page upon which the nautical knots were described with meticulous detail, I gave up.
I think Peter Weir might do for O'Brian what Peter Jackson did for Tolkien - put him on the best-seller list again.
The story in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is fairly straightforward one. During the Napoleonic Wars Jack Aubury (Crowe), the captain of the HMS Surprise, is ordered to the coast of South America to find the Acheron, a French warship almost twice the size of the British frigate. Even though out-classed by the enemy Aubury is told to disable the ship and stop it reaching the waters of the south Pacific. The Surprise finds their prize - twice - or has the Acheron found them?
It would a mistake to think this is a film about sea battles. Just as in Gallipoli, Weir is only remotely interested in the war and much more interested in the battles of minds and hearts that occur between the men who fight them. In Master and Commander the central relationship is between Aubury and Dr Stephen Maturin (Bettany) the ship's surgeon. These two are complex human beings and wonderful friends. Maturin is hired help, not a military man, so he is the truth-teller on the ship when the going gets rough under "Lucky Jack's" command. Aubury can be as tender and paternal as he can be harsh and decisive. Ships are hierarchical places and Jack is a hierarch.
Set against an epic history and upon a giant sea, the drama in Master and Commander is unusually domestic and human in scale. Some people will find that away from the action scenes, which have been brilliantly shot and edited, the pace is too slow and the emotions are not exploited enough. The only relationship this film has to Titanic is a sound stage.
What we do for most of the film is revisit Weir's favourite themes: destiny and death; the limits of human endurance; sacrificial love; and mysticism. Weir's trademark Jungian interest in how other worlds break in upon our own is in evidence on many levels throughout the film, but especially as a meditation on our place within the natural order.
Some people have complained that there are no roles for women in Master and Commander. They're right. But the feminine is everywhere. Aubury and his men love their ship as a mother. And so they should. It is tossed upon the seas of mother earth, who ultimately must be obeyed.
Master and Commander is a stunning motion picture. Weir's direction is superb, Russel Boyd's cinematography is breath taking and the art direction and costumes are as meticulously recreated as O'Brian would have liked. The special effects are among the best I have ever seen.
Russel Crowe is good but his role does not afford him the range that will earn him an Oscar. Paul Bettany, on the other hand, should be writing his speech now for Best Supporting Actor. And Mr Weir and his production team might find that Oscar loves an epic story with a soft centre.
Fr Richard Leonard SJ is the Director of the Australian Catholic Film Office.