Cinema Signal:

Seamanship in the Age of Sail

. "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World"

Russell Crowe treats us to an image of leadership that is a model of confident ease and capability. The high adventure stems from naval combat in the age of sail but it's really about one man's instinct for outwitting his superior enemy and inspiring his men. This story is told by a filmmaker with as much feeling for character and relationships amidst high adventure as his hero.

The setting for the tale is the HMS Surprise, an English warship commanded by Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) in 1805 when Napoleon is looking to expand his dominion across the seas at the expense of England. Toward that end, he had built a state of the art warship, the Acheron, with swifter sail and sturdier hull than any ship yet set loose upon the sea. It's mission is to take the English ship as a prize or to destroy it totally. Aubrey's is to beat the French marauder to the punch.

The Acheron appears in a mist of fog off the Surprise's bow, first as an apparition the sailer on watch can't be sure of, then in a fully engaged pursuit on an optimal course to do great damage. In this encounter, we are equally engaged and most impressed by the nature of the crew and the brilliant execution of Aubrey's defensive tactics that allows his ship to make an injured getaway.

As wounds are licked and repairs made, we catch a glimpse of Aubrey's leadership in his knowledge and concern for all aboard. He's not one to stick to his cabin; rather, he walks the decks and interrelates with his men. His personal friendship with the ship's surgeon (and naturalist) Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), is is evidenced by their friendly arguments and duets on their instruments in the captain's quarter. This bond is tested during the course of events when differences of priorities emerge between the men.

Aubrey's taste for humor and companionship is equal to his taste for rum. His well-rounded repertoire includes a talent for polemic and tale telling. But, mostly, it's his reserve of confidence and mastery of his main job that are expressed in his manner with the men of the crew. Ever in control, he banters easily and makes stern judgements as the situation fits. As a commanding office of a guided missile destroyer put it, "Jack Aubrey knew how to lead." It's a class portrayal by a charismatic actor who makes it supremely believable and reaffirms his high regard in the pantheon of action heros.

The action and the characters are explored fully in a superb case of balanced story telling that brings the challenges to epic levels and satisfies the gut in experiencing the pursuits and the naval exploits facing fearsome odds. Helmer (and screen writer) Peter Weir is in full control of every element of cinematic drama as he adapted the novels of Patrick O'Brian and utilizes the virtuosity of his actors and technical crew to make it a rich cinematic experience. It is, arguably, his best display of narrative power since "Witness" in 1985. As for the accurate rendering of his subject and its atmosphere, it takes you as close to shipboard life aboard a wartime frigate as you can get without becoming seasick.

Except, perhaps, for a little too much indulgence in character-building moments among minor players that tend to make the story-telling sails sag now and then, this comes close to being as fully satisfying a movie experience as you're likely to find, both for rousing action and depth of character that seem symbiotically interdependent. This is a movie that lives up to its heroic title. We say to Weir and Crowe, "more, more!"

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Russell Crowe as ship commander Jack Aubrey
enjoying a toast and companionship with his officers

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