Master and Commander – The Far Side of the World

This review was first published on the Crikey website in 2003.

This is the movie that when you see the trailer you can just hear the Hollywood execs pitching:  Pirates of the Caribbean did OK box office, right?  So what we do is sign Russell Crowe and make the seafaring swashbuckler REALLY hot!  C’mon!!  He did great Victor Mature in that sword-and-sandal Gladiator thing – let’s make him the new Errol Flynn!  Captain Blood with 21st century special effects!  There’s lots of mileage left in pirates and plank-walking – whaddaya say guys?!  

But then you go and see it because you gotta see our Russ’s latest effort, right?  Especially since they’re talking Oscar again.   And you find – ahem, touch of patriotism here – that with classy direction by Aussie Peter Weir and all the period homework done by the late Patrick O’Brian in his Hornblower-style novels on which the story is based, what you get is an intelligent and totally engaging slice of meticulously recreated life aboard a British navy ship in the early eighteen-hundreds.

Russell Crowe as Jack Aubrey and Paul Bettany as Stephen Maturin. O’Brian wrote Maturin as a short, weedy egghead, but I prefer him in this form.

Our Russ is Captain ‘Lucky’ Jack Aubrey, RN, in command of HMS Surprise, and in possession of orders to stop the depredations of a French privateer at the titular far side of the world.  Paul Bettany plays his friend Stephen Maturin, ship’s surgeon and, like so many educated men of his time, a passionate naturalist a la Joseph Banks.  All you need to know about the plot is that it has an exciting beginning, a thrilling middle and a very satisfactory end.  It’s the authentic period detail that makes this film a classic – the primitive surgery, the music, the jokes, the rigid naval hierarchy, the superstitiousness of the crew, the class-crossing sense of Englishness, the occasional brutalities that even a respected skipper like Lucky Jack uses to maintain shipboard discipline.  We even learn a bit about the naval architecture of the time and why the French ship Acheron is a faster, meaner, high-tech rival. 

This is movie-making at its best:  we are transported to a distant time and place and never doubt for one minute that this is exactly how it was.  There are no irritating anachronisms (not once does a character raise a fist and go ‘yes!’) and no focus-group filtering of the characters to make them more palatable to a 21st century viewer. 

Since seeing this film I’ve read all twenty of the Aubrey-Maturin books. They are absolutely wonderful and I wish Weir would make them all into movies.