Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

By Will Ross

On a moonlit night, looking down at the water, we see a boat whisking by the camera, or crawling along a dark ocean silhouetted by the moonlight reflected off the surface. We are instantly peering at the waves, searching for something that we can only capture glimpses of before it disappears. These opening shots establish the primary motif of Peter Weir’s masterpiece, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, an epic period piece character study the likes of which hasn’t been seen from Hollywood since Lawrence of Arabia and Patton.

The plot begins proper in a scene showing a British man-of-war ship, The Surprise, in a stretch of ocean smothered by fog. The Surprise has been ordered to capture or destroy a French privateer ship, the Acheron, in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars. Midshipman Holland scans the fog through his spyglass, and through his point of view we scan as well. Suddenly, the spyglass doubles back to a spot in the fog that may have been a bit darker than the rest. Was there something there? Neither he nor we are sure, and the time to make certain has quickly come and gone. Soon the Surprise is under fierce attack from the Acheron, a ship so much larger and more powerful that the Surprise cannot even pierce the Acheron's hull with its shots, and it limps into the fog to escape the surprise attack. The ship’s captain, Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) is humiliated and resolves to pursue the doubly large Acheron.

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Jack is a charismatic leader and clever tactician, and these qualities, along with his crew’s unwavering admiration and support, make his victories as plentiful as his pride. So when faced with a long chase in an already damaged, aging ship, he refuses to turn back. The only person who warns him against the chase is the only person on the boat outside the chain of command. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany) is the ship’s uncommonly skilled surgeon and naturalist, and Aubrey’s closest friend. But Maturin’s interests do not stay unselfish; The Surprise stops at the Galapagos Islands (decades before Darwin ever set foot on them), and the doctor is desperate to stay there for the study and capture of undiscovered species. Their debates turn into personal shouting matches, as both men sees his prize close at hand but contrary to the other’s.

They have both chosen their paths and passions, but a midshipman, no older than 12 or 13 years old, adopts both as mentors. He studies insects and animals with Maturin, and is awarded praise and books on naval battles by Aubrey, and seems to see no dividing barriers between pursuing both interests. “Perhaps I could combine them to be a sort of fighting naturalist, like you, sir,” he tells an ailing Maturin, who laments, “They don’t combine too well, I find.”

The film is mostly set on the Surprise. Scenes below decks are dark and cramped, while the scenes on deck refreshing and exhilarating, so a subtle pacing is accomplished by shifting the scenes up and down the ship. The film has a very cold, gritty shooting style, capturing the action and violence without romanticizing them, and emphasizing the characters’ own isolation in their conflicts and desires.

Peter Weir has crafted his best film by far, after steadily improving his work from the woefully misguided sentimentality of The Dead Poets Society through the somewhat spotty but sound The Truman Show. The film’s setting is so authentic and unforgiving that it would have been downright shameful to ruin it with a long inspirational speech or hackneyed attempt at character development, but for once Weir doesn’t try to offer a solution. In doing so reveals himself as a graceful, intelligent filmmaker in many respects, one whose work is at last worth being excited about but long overdue after the 2003 release of Master and Commander.

Despite garnering widespread critical praise (that still increases to this day), Master and Commander was a box office disappointment. It was unfortunate enough to be released a month after the fantasy-swashbuckler Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, which had far more action, one liners, and characters whose full complexities were fully revealed and understood within a minute of their introduction (a brevity not owed to economical characterization). By the end of Master and Commander, we still do not understand Aubrey. He states without wavering that his pursuit is entirely in the service of his country, but his recognition of the cost of pride is in question.

In one moment while describing an insect’s attempt to fool its predator by camouflaging to its environment, Maturin is asked “Does God make them change?” “Yes, certainly,” he responds. “But do they also change themselves?” Despite box office pressures to write and direct a more marketable film, Peter Weir not only cast off his consistent failings as a director, but created an original, challenging epic. Weir has changed himself and, though it may not have been immediately apparent, he has opened the door to make grand adventures profoundly personal again, proving that there is much to inspect in the little figure on a broad canvas.

So as soon as he starts making great movies he stops? What gives?


Christina said...

Commenting? I would like it if I was allowed to comment on your blog. I would tell you that I like your reviews!

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