Starring: Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, Billy Boyd
Directed by; Peter Weir
It must be the best movie title in ages to play hangman with — you’re unlikely to pick a letter in this morass that isn’t in it.
Thankfully, the movie itself isn’t so easy to pick. One of the distinct pleasures of walking into the cinema to see Master and Commander is that unlike the high concept blockbusters around right now, you don’t know what to expect (rather than knowing what to expect and hoping the hype lives up to it).
Russ’s deadly serious stare from the poster alongside a faithfully recreated early 17th century British warship will if anything have you believing it’s going to be a Greek tragedy, a Shakespearian glimpse into the mind of a man possessed by purpose.
But if you’re hoping for a deeply moving character study set against the geopolitics of the French and British Navies in the brutal days of colonialism, go and get The Bounty from the video shop instead. Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins are both brilliant in it and the theme of power struggles that form the centerpiece aren’t at the forefront of Master and Commander as you might have been led to believe.
Likewise, if you came expecting a Terminator-class action movie full of thundering cannons, bloodshed and splintering masts (like the trailer will have you thinking it is), you’ll be let down too. Those elements do exist, but it’s no popcorn-flavoured action spectacular. If one of Australian’s original auteurs — Peter Weir — ever stoops that low, it’ll indeed be a dark day for cinema.
It’s an adventure movie, nothing more. An action-adventure, if you want to be really specific; the sea battles are monumental, the cannons do thunder, and you will shred the armrest with your fingernails in tension and excitement.
The central relationship between Captain Jack Aubrey (Crowe) and ships surgeon Steven Maturin (Bettany) isn’t the stuff of Hamlet, but the emotion is palpable and drives the drama, fleshing out a much fuller story than the vast majority of action movies have. Thankfully, the heart and spirit shared by the leads and senior officers extends throughout the crew, so you’re not twiddling your thumbs waiting for the next explosion or car chase.
Based on the series of books by Patrick O’Brian, it tells the story of the HMS Surprise, led by ‘Lucky’ Jack Aubrey, a just, firm and brilliant Navy captain whose devoted crew would follow him anywhere.
After a brutal ambush by the much stronger French warship Acheron, Aubrey becomes a man almost possessed, willing to sacrifice everything for the singular purpose of hunting it down. As the crew slowly comes undone and even his best friend Maturin starts to doubt his determination, Aubrey has to keep a rapidly deteriorating ship full of sailors together while driven to catch up with their prey.
Despite his superstar-class style and persona, Rusty still hasn’t turned in a performance worthy of an Oscar, but the likeable charisma he shows here is likely to get him another nomination. Paul Bettany stands out from a blurred crowd of mostly unknowns as Maturin — a quietly clever and discriminating man drawn into a fight between loyalty to his friend and captain and his duty to science, medicine, and common sense.
The real star here is director Weir. In what must have been a nightmarish shoot — done entirely at sea except for the single land location of the Galapagos Islands (it’s reputedly the first feature film to be shot there) — we’re in the thick of the action at every step, racing alongside the ships as they battle fiercely or crash through a storm swept ocean, feeling the boom of every cannon blast and almost smelling the fear in the cramped interiors.
The design, cinematography and sound editing are nothing short of astounding in every scene. No detail’s been overlooked and the authenticity is startling. Yawning ropes and creaking wood rumble off camera and the picture (and props) sway with the waves. In several scenes, we follow characters around belowdecks in the dark, claustrophobic confines of the quarters or gun batteries, and you can almost feel the texture of the sweating wood. Tension on the ocean hasn’t been made this real on screen since Das Boot.
And it’s great to see Iva Davies, former Icehouse frontman, doing a Danny Elfman (heavyweight Hollywood composer and former lead of weird 80’s electronica band Oingo Boingo) to score Master and Commander — an exuberant, tense and swelling soundtrack you can just tell he loved doing.