Saturday, November 15, 2003

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

Acting’s bad-boy Russell Crowe gets nautical, as “Lucky Jack” Aubrey, captain of HMS Surprise in the Napoleonic Wars, pursuing a Bismarck-like French juggernaut on the high seas around South America. It’s based on one of twenty (count ‘em) novels by Patrick O’Brian, and directed by Peter Weir, known for a small, highly respected body of original and quietly powerful works such as Witness, Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Year of Living Dangerously, plus a more energetic The Truman Show. So it’s a bit of a surprise that he’s trying his hand at a genre piece, albeit a category that’s been mostly dormant for some time. Co-starring Paul Bettany as ship’s surgeon, Captain’s pal and proto-Darwin (the Galapagos Islands figure prominently), and a complement of sweaty sailors.

It’s a solid entertainment with a goodly amount of thematic depth, and Crowe dispense discipline and encouragement in equal doses and with the same ease—an almost too-perfect leader (having him play the violin to show his sensitive side was pushing it). For most of the movie, the French ship is an under-lit cipher, like the trucker’s rig in Duel, imbruing it with a seeming invincibility.

I could have used more of Weir’s visual lyricism, but this is clearly the birth of a franchise.