THE definitive movie about 1800 British naval warfare! This movie deserved all the Academy Award nominations (fairly beaten by the RINGS trilogy – but only because they were a combined 3 films). The movie is an excellent, epic adventure that grabs the audience and catapults them into the past – aboard a 200-man British naval man-of-war – the Frigate SURPRISE.
The surprise is that all movie goers will find something to like in this movie. It is well made, well acted, and thoroughly engrossing. For anyone who has ever served in the Navy, it is a MUST HAVE. For anyone who has ever been married to anyone in the Navy, it is a MUST SEE – to appreciate the amazing lifestyle on board a warship.
Director Peter Weir (THE TRUMAN SHOW) professionally takes the popular nautical novels by Patrick O’Brian set in the 1805 period – the Napoleonic Wars – and creates a very accurate account of life aboard a British frigate at war. To say that you “understand” that life after this movie is truly a great compliment to Weir and how he did not compromise on the quality and integrity of the movie.
The movie opens with the HMS Surprise plodding through thick fog, on patrol off the coast of Brazil.
The HMS Surprise’s orders are to be on the lookout for a new French man-of-war, the Archeron (made in the USA, by the way, and therefore much superior construction and firepower to the Surprise). Out of the fog comes the Archeron, guns blazing, and the Surprise is badly damaged and only escapes through the luck of the weather gods. Captain “Luck Jack” Audrey (Russell Crowe) is England’s last line (only line) of defense in keeping the Archeron out of the trading lanes of the Pacific.
Aubrey is torn between duty and friendship as he pursues a high-stakes chase across two oceans, to intercept and capture the Archeron. Worse, the Archeron’s captain is apparently just as smart and crafty as Aubrey. The movie travels the world – from the coast of Brazil to the storm-tossed waters of Cape Horn, south toward Antarctica through ice and snow, to the remote shores of the Galapagos Islands (becoming the first feature film ever to film there).
But it is the 197 souls crammed onto this small patch of England floating in the ocean that brings the story to life. Author Patrick O’Brian provides a complete and dazzling detail of the period – that of the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin naval adventure novels have been rated by the New York Times as “the best historical novels ever written.” Importantly, the ship’s doctor, Maturin (Paul Bettany), is Aubrey’s friend
There is a just about everything to like in this movie. Russell Crowe amazes in his range of characters and demonstrates again why he is arguably one of the top 5 actors on the planet – we couldn’t think of many actors who could have played the part of Jack Aubrey and brought it off as well as Crowe. Producers get their monies worth with Crowe…
The supporting cast is also excellent. With Paul Bettany (A BEAUTIFUL MIND), turning in a superior performance. Bettany’s performance is also key to the success of the story, as the interplay between Aubrey and Dr. Maturin is the sole undercurrent of the movie. Billy Boyd (Pipin in LORD OF THE RINGS) makes the best of a small part, and character actors George Innis, Richard McCabe, and Robert Pugh are particularly noteworthy in nailing excellent performances. Frankly, the casting top to bottom in this film is perfect.
Max Pirkis lights up the screen as Blakenley, a 12-year old midshipman. With the looks of an adolescent Owen Wilson, and the charm of Harry Potter (someone ought to put him in one of the upcoming HP movies FAST!), with a few good roles Pirkis is certain to emerge over the next few years. Again, this kid steals the show in every scene with Crowe and that is VERY hard to do!
Before we made the following comment, we screened the DVD with 8 random individuals with the following question: How much of the dialog did you understand (intelligible)? None of the screeners opined that they “heard” more than 80% of the dialog… one offered that they couldn’t understand more than 20%.
There is no way to say this tactfully – the sound quality on this film is atrocious. Specifically, the “storm” and “fighting” sequences are extremely loud (as they should be) – but if you set your home audio system to those levels (so it doesn’t blast you out of the room), the resulting level is too “low” to understand most dialog. This situation is exacerbated when you add thick accents, and quick speech laced with nautical terms (very accurate by the way)… most viewers will be scratching their heads wondering what the heck is happening.
For example, none of the viewers we polled understood the very brief dialog between Aubrey and Blakenley – that identified young Blakenley as a Lord, and his parents of high regard. The point that was missed in the botched sound, was that in this period nobility often sent their children (especially if they were not immediately in line to be heirs) into the military. SO – a lot of the subplots and details are “lost in translation” due to poor sound editing. My professional belief (having also seen the movie in theater) is that this is one of the two main reasons the movie didn’t do well financially
Finally, please see the DVD extra material discussion below.
DVD Extras –
None – nope none… I couldn’t believe it. There should have been an entire extra DVD disc about the Napoleonic era, the British naval evolution and the impacts of sea power on making England the world power it became, and the life of the average seaman (only fleetingly the movie mentions that most seamen were “pressed” into service – i.e., they were grabbed off the streets and put on board a ship, where you could serve or swim). I am completely shocked that they missed such a golden opportunity here – perhaps there will be a “Director’s Edition” at some point in the future (which will have such features).
MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD is a great swashbuckling epic saga that needs to be on everyone’s list. Crowe is fantastic, and the writing, cast, and directing combine to create a very accurate account of the Napoleonic naval war. A great gift for anyone in the Navy, and a very entertaining story for us all.