Nautical But Nice
It's quite rare that many of the biggest and most successful films in a given year should share even a tenuous connection: but 2003 seems to be just such a beast, with two huge blockbusters united by their hearts of oak and the tang of brine in their nostrils. Only a churl could begrudge the revival of the maritime movie - well, only a churl or someone whose stock of naval jokes ran out about the same time Pirates of the Caribbean was released. Hey ho...
Sailing into view and hoping to emulate the success of Pirates and Finding Nemo comes Peter Weir's hefty and unwieldily-titled 19th century adventure Master And Commander - The Far Side Of The World, wherein big Russell Crowe plays 'Lucky' Jack Aubrey, captain of the HMS Surprise. Also aboard are surgeon and naturalist Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), who interestingly doesn't turn out to be a figment of the captain's imagination, and coxswain Barrett Bonden (Billy Boyd, who's apparently in some piece of junk due out in a few weeks, and has seemingly gone all cockney on us). Ordered to hunt down a French warship, Crowe and his command get a severe mauling on their first encounter with it - but refusing to give up, Russ embarks on a pursuit that will take him and his ship halfway around the planet...
There's been a lot of frankly quite excitable hype about this movie, mostly declaring it to effectively be Gladiator 2. It isn't, to be honest, and I have to say I found it much more engaging and enjoyable than that. This isn't a routine studio adventure but something more subtle and idiosyncratic. There really isn't much of a plot, for one thing - the pursuit of the French ship merely provides the framework for a series of loosely-linked vignettes about shipboard life at this time in history. Suffice to say that before all is done and dusted, there's time for sing-songs, iguana-spotting, the odd duet on violin and cello, grisly ad hoc brain surgery, cunning ruses, heroism, tragedy, and one really and truly shockingly bad pun (and as attentive masochists will know, that's an informed opinion).
This certainly makes the film distinctive and the sheer level of detail makes the film highly absorbing (fans of Patrick O'Brian's original novels may still be inclined to nitpick). But it also delivers when it comes to thrills and spectacle - there are two top-notch sea battles and a storm sequence that nearly made me seasick. The pace is, for the most part, expertly judged, and the only slightly peculiar note is struck by the 'just another day at the office' ending, which jars slightly with the epic nature of the main story.
But it's the characters that bring the tale to life, and of course foremost amongst these is Aubrey, a towering performance from Crowe as a man who's no stranger to compassion or self-doubt, but also exactly the person you want watching your back at the sharp end of a boarding action. Expect at least one of his rousing speeches to enter the cultural lexicon alongside 'Are you not yet entertained?' and other things like that. Bettany is very nearly as impressive in a much less showy part, and it's to the credit of the actors that the friendship of two such very different men is credible throughout. All the cast are good, though, from Max Pirkis' commendably non-schmaltzy turn as a very young officer, to David Thewlis' quietly comic performance as Aubrey's grumbling steward.
As you can probably tell I enjoyed Master And Commander enormously and in almost any other year I would happily have made it my preferred candidate for big time Oscar success. It is, admittedly, totally lacking in female characters and the plot is perhaps a bit too linear for some people's tastes. But it's enthralling, instantly convincing fun, and hugely impressive in every department. Highly recommended.