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Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World Review

By Shawn McKenzie 12/08/2003

I was almost not going to see Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.  I had heard from a fellow colleague that it was boring, and since I hadn’t had a chance to attend a free screening, I didn’t want to fork out the money to see it.  Then I kept being asked for my opinion of the movie from everyone who knew me, and I saw that the National Board of Review placed it on their top ten best of the year list, so I figured I should see this potential Oscar contender.  While it won’t be making my personal top ten list, it wasn’t as bad as I had feared.


Captain “Lucky” Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) is the captain of a British Navy warship named the H.M.S. Surprise, and it is April of 1805 around the time of the Napoleonic wars.  Aubrey has been ordered to intercept the French frigate Acheron and stop her efforts to reach the Pacific by burning her, sinking her, or taking her as a prize.  Unfortunately, the Acheron gets the better of them, and the Surprise is almost destroyed.  Midshipmen Hollum (Lee Ingleby) had actually seen the ship before the attack, but since he had not gained the respect of the men below him, no one believed him.  Thanks to Aubrey’s direction, the Surprise is able to escape capture and/or destruction by going into a fogbank.  Among the injured in the attack are young midshipman Lord Blakeney (Max Pirkis), who loses an arm, and able seaman Joe Plaice (George Innes), who required brain surgery performed by the ship’s doctor, Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany.)  Everyone assumes that they will head home to repair the ship, but Aubrey insists on repairing it at sea while they chase the Acheron, a decision that everyone dislikes.  Aside from Maturin, Hollum, Blakeney, and Plaice, the crew consists of coxswain Barrett Bonden (Billy Boyd), First Lt. Tom Pullings (James D’Arcy), sailing master Mr. Allen (Robert Pugh), and the teenaged midshipman Peter Calamy (Max Benitz.)  The more heavily armed Acheron makes a second attack, but a skillful ruse involving sending Calamy out on a raft has them avoid any more damage.  They stop in the Galapagos Islands to restock and repair the damage, which makes Maturin happy, since he is a nature scientist, and the islands have several undiscovered new species of animals that he’d like to study.  Aubrey promises Maturin that they would be there for a couple of days, since they didn’t know where the Acheron was located.  Aubrey takes his promise back when he finds evidence of the location of the Acheron and decides to head out immediately.  Unfortunately, the ship is stranded by the lack of wind, until a crewmember sacrifices himself, thinking that he has cursed the ship.  It works for some reason, and they are on their way, but then Maturin is accidentally shot, so Aubrey has the ship go back to the Islands.  After healing himself, Maturin finally gets to study the animals, but has to give it up once again when he sees the Acheron.  Ironically, the animal studies may help the Surprise finally live up to its name in the end.


This was director Peter Weir’s first movie since the wonderful The Truman Show, and that alone should have brought me to see it.  After all, Weir was the man who had helmed Green Card, Dead Poets Society, Witness, and Gallipoli, all movies I have loved.  I just couldn’t get “boring” out of my head, and with the running time being two hours and eighteen minutes, I knew that was certainly possible.


So, was it boring?  To tell you the truth, the middle part of it was.  After a couple of exciting battle scenes at the beginning, it drags heavily.  Once the “curse” is lifted, the movie gets interesting again.


Aside from the middle part, I had a couple of problems.  For one, the men and the ships were so similar-looking that I occasionally couldn’t tell who was a bad guy and who was a good guy.  The second thing was the fate of one of the two young crewmen.  I don’t want to spoil anything, but if they hadn’t exchanged “good luck” wishes before a battle, I wouldn’t have been able to predict what was going to happen.  Minor quibble though.


Overall, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World was worth checking out, especially for the impressive battle scenes meant to be seen on the big screen.  I’m predicting that Weir, Crowe, Bettany, and the movie itself will all get Oscar nominations.  Bettany actually impressed me more than Crowe, because I’m used to seeing him play weird characters rather than level-headed doctors.  I’m always impressed when an actor plays against type.  I’ve also heard that the movie will please fans of novelist Patrick O’Brian, of which the movie is based on two of his novels.  Check it out for yourself and see if you think it is exciting or boring.  As for me, I think I will get more than one opinion before I automatically assume a movie is boring.


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