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

It’s funny, once upon a time the only folk that could be regularly relied upon to turn beloved books into television series were the Poms. They’d often start (or remain) a made-for-TV movie and, if it earned enough interest from the right people, would eventually become a series. Murder mysteries for the most part, as with the Yanks for a long time, but there was also a much firmer place for fantasy and/or period pieces. The Discworld books, some stuff by Neil Gaiman, the odd bit of Arthurian legend, whatever work by the Bronte sisters was most popular that year (I really need to sit down and read Pride and Prejudice one of these days), and of course the works of C.S Forester and Bernard Cornwell. And that is what I find to be most peculiar about Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, that fact that it was a proper work of cinema and not a TV series.

Not to say that it’s a bad film. Quite the contrary, I think it’s fuckin’ fantastic. The violence is excellent. Damage to the ship is big and brutal, splinters flying, ropes snapping and masts cracking. At the same time it’s an intimate thing, closeups following the men as they fire the cannons and receive fire. Easy to follow, tense, and with little-to-no plot armour (name another film that will cut off a boy’s arm within the first half hour), but most of all detailed. The good doctor calling for more sand to make the floor less slippery, doors removed from the captain’s cabin to allow access to the guns stored there, ignoring the swords and grabbing the captain’s silver to be stored safely during an action. Good stuff, humanising stuff.

The soundtrack adds. Simple strings to fit the mood and drums that provide a rhythm to every desperate battle and gambit, with dead silences used to ramp up the tension right before something is due to happen.

The best part is the characters. Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany and Max Pirkis are the peak of an enormous and excellent cast. Director Peter Weir does a great job of getting so many great performances out of so many great actors creating so many great and (most importantly) memorable characters. The ship is a closed environment, with different politics, relationships and superstitions presented across four perspectives: the crew at the bottom, cannon fodder, driven by rum, fear of the lash and loyalty to their commander; the junior officers, the midshipmen, terrified and uncertain, walking a fine line (not always successfully) to earn the respect of the men beneath; the good doctor, outside of the traditional hierarchy and often in opposition to Naval discipline (in many ways a surrogate for the audience); and at the top of it all the Captain, the commander, bound by tradition, duty and his own orders.

Crowe does a fantastic job as “Lucky” Jack Aubrey, a charismatic captain able to summon incredible loyalty from the men beneath him, yet one that struggles to find his tongue when faced with the horribly maimed son of a dear friend who still idolises him. Bettany plays the doctor, the forward thinker, the only man on the ship allowed to question Jack’s command (within reason), but one that can never truly understand the men around him and whose protestations often fall on deaf ears. Their relationship is brilliant and real, arguments are common but the care is genuine. The bromance is probably the best part of the film.

But, as much as I enjoy this film and going back to what I was saying in the first paragraph, I cannot understand why and how this film was made. This is a film about relationships punctuated by the odd bit of action, based on a book from a series I’d never heard of until well after the first time I watched this movie. It lacks the epic scale of other period action-dramas like Gladiator, or the famous source material of other based-on-books like the Lord of the Rings trilogy or The Green Mile. Yet they spent 150 million dollars turning this into a film. A highly rated film, that made back its money, but still.

And it’s funny, ’cause I doubt I would have thought so back in 2003, before the current golden age of television shows was even a twinkle in HBO’s eye. I watch the film now and can’t help but feel that the adventures and relationships of the crew of the HMS Surprise would have made a fantastic television show, though of course when it was greenlit that wasn’t even close to an option. It’s funny how perspectives change like that. Maybe it’s because the film now feels far more like it was planning on becoming a series. Yes, the plot is self-contained, and half the named crew… well, yeah, lack of plot armour, but there’s still this air that they were hoping on bringing Jack, Stephen and the HMS Surprise back for another cruise around the Atlantic and/or Pacific. Maybe it’s just the second part of the title, The Far Side of the World. You don’t usually stick a colon there unless you’re planning on using the first part of the title again later.

Anyway, watch this film. Tell me if you agree, tell me why if you don’t and we can argue a bit. Regardless, it’s a film worth watching.

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