If any actor really drenches himself in the parts he plays, it's Russell Crowe, who gives us yet another magistral performance as Capt. Jack Aubrey of HMS Surprise in Peter Weir's magnificent 1805 seafaring adventure 'Master and Commander' (official site).
This latest war movie from the genial Australian director and screenwriter ranks very high for another tremendous piece of acting by Paul Bettany as Dr Stephen Maturin, ship's surgeon and captain's confidant, conscience ... and partner in violin and cello duets!
Yes, 'Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World' is of course the naval action movie — set off the coasts of South America during the Napoleonic Wars — that has only just been released in France after reaping high praise for some weeks in the States and elsewhere.
Newly arrived visitors from Mars with some notion of Terran history may care to be told that it tells the tale of an English frigate sent in pursuit off Brazil of a powerful French corsair, Acheron, which threatens to carry the European war to the other hemisphere and wreak havoc among merchant trading vessels and isolated whaling fleets.
After a first bloody and fiery encounter out of the fog with a foe which massively outguns him, 'Lucky Jack' — but is his seamanship and fortune still up to the nickname he enjoys? — has to choose between what he regards as his duty and the immense risk to his crew of pursuing the chase.
That "what England expects" wins out is obvious, otherwise there'd be no film, but this is one of the slowest paced of the action sagas from Weir ('Gallipoli,' 1981; 'The Year of Living Dangerously,' 1982; 'Witness,' 1985...). This lack of haste, the doubtless extremely expensive attention lavished on splendid vessels, period naval detail and shipboard life and the depths given to the range of characters caught up in the chase are among the strengths of the movie.
Maturin is a reluctant warrior, indeed essentially a man of peace and a dedicated naturalist, quite a contrast to his cultured, increasingly obsessive but always outgoing friend and captain.
That the two will eventually clash is inevitable and both actors bring great conviction to their roles. Bettany reminded me occasionally of a young Anthony Hopkins back in the 1970s of the BBC's staggeringly good 'War and Peace' (IMDb).
When the adventure takes HMS Surprise through the ferocious seas off Cape Horn and up the Americas' coast to that extraordinary natural realm of the Galapagos Islands, Weir makes the very most of some fine location filming and the story line to drop us more than a hint of Darwinism and the 'Origin of Species' (BBC educational site) in the making!
It's both the workings of unusual beasts and the man of science, moreover, that finally give our intrepid captain his clue as to how he just might take on the Acheron and even overcome the American-built battleship.
Insects of one sort or another play almost as important a part in this maritime saga as a good and almost exclusively British cast, apart from Crowe (a New Zealander).
From the slow ship-time sense of a very long voyage to action scenes of tremendous ferocity, realism and near chaos, Weir sheds the considerable dross of a frankly often tedious book (Chad Orzel's BC review) by the late Patrick O'Brian.
Spilled guts and blood get just enough attention to send shivers down our spines — the Kid's writhing in the seat next to me reminded me of my own childhood imaginings of seagoing amputations without anaesthetics! — but Weir doesn't linger on the gore any more than he ventures near the swashbuckling clichés of Hollywood and the waves.
As with some of his other films, there's sometimes a documentary feel even to this one, while I've never seen anything to match tempests like his apart from one mind-blowing real one off southern France to the cinema seas of 'The Perfect Storm' (Flash site).
Oh yes. A largely period (or more modern but fitting, with no fewer than three composers' credits) musical score helped make an excellent movie, as do some of the younger actors in the near child-sailor posts of the era, Billy Boyd not the least among them.