Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)

Film review: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), directed by Peter Weir

With a title that makes it sound like it’s part two of a trilogy or something like that, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is a seafaring epic from director Peter Weir (Dead Poets Society, one of my all-time favourite films), starring Russell Crowe as Captain Jack Aubrey. Set in the early 1800s, the adimirable Captain Aubrey runs a British Navy ship set out to conquer a French warship. With him, he has a collection of men of all ages – including some that have hardly hit their teens.

I really should’ve written this as soon as I saw the film, because now I can’t remember who on earth the people whose names I wrote down were. Ho hum.

The film opens with the British ship spotting the French ship and I thought “well, that’s what the info-button says it’s about – is this going to be a three-hour battle at sea?” Not quite.

There’s some battle going on, sure, but there’s also a lot of trying to figure out how to take down the opponent, repairing the ship after battle, and how to find time for the doctor (Paul Bettany) to get ashore to study the wildlife of the Galapagos Islands. It’s a character-driven story more than anything, and you get a good feel for what it was possibly like to be aboard a ship back in those days. How there are days when there is no wind and other days when there is nothing but wind – and rain, and thunder and falling overboard and being swept away.

Master and Commander (sod the full title) is not a film to sea [sic!] (sic again, hah!!) if you’re afraid of water. There’s lots and lots of it. But that’s what I like about it. The sea, the ship, the sails – it’s intoxicating. To see Crowe and Bettany in uniform AND cravats (AT THE SAME TIME!) doesn’t exactly hurt either. Just a shame you can’t smell the briny seas or the tar – but on the other hand, perhaps a relief not having to smell the sweat and blood and cannon fire.

There’s very little you see of the French crew; it’s almost as if it’s a ghost ship, but since this isn’t Pirates of the Caribbean, the ship is not a phantom at all. There is some well-played and really stupid superstition, which ultimately leads tragedy, but there are no pirates come to say ARRRR. Which is a shame, in a way, because with all these great-looking old ships darting about the Seven Seas and not one pirate. There are some whalers instead, but that’s not the same.

If you want an action-packed film about battles on the High Seas, perhaps you should look elsewhere. This is more about life on a ship in the early 1800s as opposed to a war epic. It’s vastly more human, and that’s what I like about it. Very enjoyable and I do like Peter Weir as a director as well. He seems to pick his films to be profoundly touching, in one way or another. While the plot of chasing the French is forgettable, the story of the supposedly “cursed” sailor will stay with me, along with the thought that they let boys who barely look like they’ve hit puberty serve in the navy. How times have changed.

3.8 out of 5 cannon balls.

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