Monday, January 10, 2011

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Originally Written and Posted at on 1/16/10 w/ Additional Edits.

2003 saw the return of old-school naval combat with the surprising success of Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. It seemed like swashbuckling and sword fights were back in but later that year, another film came out with the idea of naval combat. Instead of being about pirates, the project was based on a series of novels by Patrick O'Brian about the relationship between naval captain Jack Aubrey and the ship's surgeon Stephen Maturin set during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s. The first novel that was published in 1969 called Master and Commander during a battle between the English and French. The novel along with two more would be adapted into a project by famed Australian director Peter Weir entitled Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.

Directed by Peter Weir with a screenplay by Weir and John Collee. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World tells the story of a British naval captain who is pursuing a French merchant ship. During the pursuit and eventual battle, the captain deals with his crew and their surgeon along with the enemy ship that proves to be superior to its own. A film about strategies and how a captain and crew converse with another. It is considered to be one of the best told tales about naval combat. Starring Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, James D'Arcy, Billy Boyd, Max Pirkis, and George Innes. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is a brilliant, ambitious, and intelligent masterpiece from Peter Weir.

It's 1805 in the south of the Brazilian coast as the HMS Surprise is on pursuit of a French merchant ship known as the Acheron in order to burn, sink, or claim it as a prize. On a foggy day, midshipman Hollom (Lee Ingleby) sees an object shaped like a big ship covered by the fog. Though Hollom is uncertain, the news reaches the ship's Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) who goes for a look when they are suddenly attacked by the Acheron which is revealed to be a bigger ship with more cannons and guns as it heavily damages the Surprise and killing nine men in the process. Among the wounded is the young midshipman William Blakeney (Max Pirkis) who got shot in the arm.

Aubrey orders his coxswain Barrett Bonden (Billy Boyd) to sail the ship into the fog so they can get away from the Acheron which they succeed but the Surprise is inflicted with a lot of damage. With the ship's surgeon/naturalist Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany) tending to the wounded including the young Blakeney. Aubrey and his officers try to figure out what to do next in order to repair the ship since they can't go back to England as they're still on the hunt for the Acheron. After a young crew member named Warley (Joseph Morgan) shows Aubrey a model of the Acheron that he had seen being built in America. Aubrey realizes what he is up against as he knows what its weakness is but figures it might not be enough.

After a repair and a stop at a nearby island for food supplies, the Acheron surprises them yet again with Aubrey and crew hoping to get away from them miles and miles away until nightfall. A decoy is built to distract the ship using small sailing towers and lanterns for the distraction. The strategy succeeds as Aubrey and Maturin figure out what to do next along with several officers including Blakeney, sailing master Mr. Allen (Robert Pugh), First Lieutenant Tom Pulling (James D'Arcy), Captain Howard of the Marines (Chris Larkin), and another young midshipman in Peter Myles Calamy (Max Benitz) for a dinner where Aubrey talks about his own naval experiences. Realizing they're being the Acheron, Aubrey and his men have a chance to go after them but a treacherous storm would only lead to dire consequences that would bring conflict to Aubrey's persona of being a captain following his duties and a man who is beloved by his crew.

The incident would bring some bad luck for the men and their morale until a stop at the Galapagos Islands has Maturin excited in researching the islands for naturalistic reasons as Aubrey promises that Maturin would get the chance to look at it for several days. Instead, the Surprise encounter surviving whalers led by Mr. Hogg (Mark Lewis Jones) would make Aubrey want to pursue the Acheron much to Maturin's dismay. Yet, rising heat and dipping morale has one of the ship's crew members in an old seaman named Joe Plaice (George Innes) who believes there's a Jonah. Many are looking towards Hollom who some felt has made the ship cursed which only disturbs the troubled officer. Aubrey tries to maintain order as he ends up punishing a crewman in Joseph Nagle (Bryan Dick) but it would cause more trouble.

After a day of rain that raises morale again, an accidental shooting has Maturin wounded where the ship's other surgeon Mr. Higgins (Richard McCabe) is forced to perform surgery on Maturin. Yet, realizing that a proper surgery could work on land, Aubrey decides to live up to his promise to Maturin where the surgery becomes a success. Maturin, Blakeney, and Aubrey's steward Killick (David Threlfall) explore the island and all of its creatures where a discovery Maturin makes along with a creature that Blakeney learned about earlier would give Aubrey an idea to attack the Acheron.

While the film is about strategy and a captain's pursuit to attack a ship that is far superior to his own. It's really a whole lot more. While Captain Aubrey is a man devoted to duty and what he has to do for his country. He's also a man treats his crew no matter how big or small they are like equals. Yet, like all captains. He has to make decisions of what he has to do for survival. Even if the costs are great. At one point, he had a chance to save a man's life but at the risk of his own ship where he's reflected by the decisions he makes and it's never easy.

The screenplay that director Peter Weir and co-screenwriter John Collee is truly complex. Not only for Aubrey's complexity as a character and as a man. It's also about he treats his crew along with his own friendship with Stephen Maturin, the ship's surgeon. Maturin is a man who plays a conscience of sorts for Aubrey where they would argue privately so Aubrey can maintain his role as a leader. Even when Aubrey's leadership is tested. Yet, Maturin is a man who is interested in nature where at one point. His love of nature and animals would get him into a bit of trouble. Still, Maturin is a man who is just as complex as Aubrey where they're the two personalities that drive the story.

Weir and Collee also gives the audience a chance to get to know various crew members and their own interaction with the two main characters. Yet, it's all about how a captain and a crew deal with the enemy in this cat and mouse game of sorts. It's a film that is about a lot of things as Weir and Collee create a fantastic script that is about the battle and how a captain must try to do his duty even if he has to face events that would test his own morality and role as a leadership.

Weir's direction is truly fascinating in its huge, epic vision. The film is meant to look big yet Weir makes it more than just a simple action/adventure piece. Yet, there's moments where Weir maintains a sense of intimacy or at times, claustrophobia about what's going on inside the ship. The ship is a character that is important than the people on the ship along with the Acheron that is the antagonist where the audience doesn't see the crew of that ship until its climatic battle. Weir also has these long yet amazing compositions to let the audience know where it's being shot at the open sea with some real island locations.

The scenes at the Galapagos islands and other locations have a sense of beauty that is reminiscent of the work of Terrence Malick. Notably for the fact that it plays up to the character of Maturin's own fascination with nature. What Weir does for parts of the second and third act is give the audience a break from the action and give them a chance for them to be engaged by the characters and their own personalities. Even let a man like Aubrey get away from his role as captain for a while. The mesmerizing yet epic direction that Weir does show a man who is clearly at the top of his game as a director.

Cinematographer Russell Boyd does spectacular with the film's award-winning cinematography which is truly deserving. Boyd's gorgeous exterior shots of the Galapagos Islands with daytime and evening light scenes that is truly reminiscent of the work of Terrence Malick. Boyd's camera work inside the Surprise in its nighttime scenes are very intimate with a bit of mid-lit looks in the officer's dining room while the look of the crew's bunkers are very low-lit with lanterns being used. The nighttime exteriors of the ships are wonderful in its dark mood while the day time is truly expansive and epic in its scope. Boyd's work is truly an amazing technical highlight of the film.

Editor Lee Smith does excellent work with the film's break-pace editing for many of the film's intense action sequences. Yet, Smith also succeed in maintaining a pace, though a bit slow, is deliberate for the audience to be engaged into the characters and drama that goes on with the ship's crew. Even as it has a film that feels like a long epic but makes sure it doesn't feel too long in its 138-minute running time. Production designer William Sandell along with set decorator Robert Gould and a team of art directors do an amazing job with the film's set design on the ship of the HMS Surprise. The look of the ship is brilliant in its scale along with the claustrophobic look of the bunkers and the place where the cannons are. The art direction overall is another brilliant achievement in the film's technical field.

Costume designer Wendy Stites does an excellent job with the look of the uniforms that the officers wear along with the ragged clothing of the crew as it has a real sense of authenticity and grittiness to the film. Visual effects supervisors Mitchell S. Drain, Stefen Fangmeier, Nathan McGuinness, and Marc Varisco does fantastic work with the visual effects for parts of the ship and moments of destruction along with the look of the treacherous storm that the Surprise encounters. Sound designer Richard King does great work in the film's sound for the use of intense action sequences, the calm atmosphere of the wavy sea, and the lush tone of the Galapagos islands as the sound work is phenomenal.

The music score by Iva Davies, Christopher Gordon, and Richard Tognetti bring a mesmerizing yet bombastic score that plays to various sections for action sequences with more somber orchestral arrangements for the film's dramatic scenes. A lot of the film's music features pieces by Amadeus, Bach, and Luigi Boccherini along with sea chanteys to maintain a rich soundtrack that is a mixture of traditional and classical music.

The casting by Mary Selway and Fiona Weir is superb in its large ensemble with several actors standing out. Among them are Ousmane Thiam as Killick's cooking assistant, Mark Lewis Jones as Mr. Hogg, Joseph Morgan as the carpenter William Warley, Bryan Dick as Warley's friend Nagle, Richard McCabe as the ship's other surgeon Mr. Higgins, and Chris Larkin as the Marine captain Howard. Billy Boyd, known many as Pippin of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, is very good as the ship's no-nonsense coxswain Barrett Bonden while George Innes is really good as paranoid Joe Plaice. Lee Ingleby is fantastic as the tortured midshipman Hollom while Max Benitz is excellent as the young Calamy. Robert Pugh is wonderful as the ship's sailing master Mr. Allen while Max Pirkis is brilliant as the young Blakeney, a young boy who is both a fighter like Captain Aubrey but also a sensitive naturalist like Maturin. James D'Arcy is also brilliant as Lt. Pullings, a young officer who tries to maintain order while learning from someone as complex as Aubrey.

Paul Bettany is superb in what is truly an outstanding supporting role as Stephen Maturin, the ship's surgeon and naturalist. Bettany's calm, sensitive performance is wonderfully understated while he does show emotion in intense scenes he has with Russell Crowe where the two have a great sense of rapport with each other. Russell Crowe is brilliant as Captain Jack Aubrey with a towering, larger-than-life persona that is complex in its presence. Crowe's performance is also understated in some places of how he treats his crew and officers quite equally with a bit of humor and playfulness. Crowe, who is often very serious in his performances, here loosens up a bit while proving to be an adept violinist in his scenes with Bettany, who plays cello that shows the great rapport between the two.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is a sprawling yet spectacular film from Peter Weir featuring great performances by Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany. Fans of Weir's work will no doubt see this as one of his finest while it also features what is probably Russell Crowe's best work as an actor. Fans of naval combat films will definitely be amazed for its complexity as well as camaraderie between officers and crew. Even as the film is something worth revisiting for those who missed it the first time around when it was released in late 2003. It is a rare big-budgeted Hollywood film that is both filled with substance and style while being entertaining and insightful. In the end, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is a mesmerizing yet epic film from Peter Weir and company.

Peter Weir Films: (3 to Go-Michael) – (Homesdale) – (Whatever Happened to Green Valley?) - (The Cars That Ate Paris) - Picnic at Hanging Rock - (The Last Wave) - The Plumber (1979 TV film) - Gallipoli - The Year of Living Dangerously - (Witness) - (The Mosquito Coast) - Dead Poets Society - (Green Card) - (Fearless) - (The Truman Show) - The Way Back

© thevoid99 2011


Courtney Small said...

The first time I saw this film, I hated it. Thought it was slow and uninteresting (probably did not help that I saw it late at night). Yet I have watch the film a couple of times since and have really falling in love with it. Weir does such an outstanding job with his direction. The subtleties really come through on repeat viewing. I also think that this is Bettany's best performance to date.

thevoid99 said...

Yeah, I wasn't into the film at first when I first saw it. Then I saw it again and again through scattered viewings. Then after seeing it again, I realized that it's a one-of-a-kind movie that rarely gets seen. I also agree with you on Paul Bettany as well. They don't make films like this.

More props to Peter Weir and I highly anticipate The Way Back.