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Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
2003 - PG-13 - 138 Mins.
Director: Peter Weir
Producer: Samyuel Goodwyn Jr.
Written By: Patrick O'Brian, Peter Weir
Starring: Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, Ian Mercer, James D'Arcy, John Desantis
Review by: Greg Ursic
By 1805 Napoleon had consolidated his position in France, and determined to spread his influence across the globe he commissioned warships and privateers to plunder British holdings abroad. Captain "Lucky Jack" Aubrey and the crew of the HMS Surprise are dispatched from Brazil to scupper Napoleon's plans, but before they can take action, they are ambushed by the Acheron a powerful French battleship that nearly sends them to the deep. Outmanned, outgunned and with the ship in desperate need of repairs, Jack decides, against orders and apparent common sense to pursue the Acheron across the seven seas and settle the score.

In order to bring Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander (number 10 of the 20 volume opus) to life, Peter Weir insisted on historical accuracy down to the smallest detail. This included the use of an actual tall ship: the Rose, a museum quality replica of a British three-masted frigate, was, after extensive renovations, reborn as the HMS Surprise. Weir also insisted that the cast learn the skills appropriate to their characters including how to set the riggings, fight with small arms, and navigate. It was a challenge that the cast took to with vigor.

Russel Crowe spent long hours preparing for the role of Lucky Jack, studying naval strategy, learning how to sail a ship (which he actually did on the open ocean), and developing mastery with both the sword and violin. Evidently it worked: his familiarly with the nuances of the character results in a stirring performance that brims with confidence and a calm fluidity (there have already been murmurs of another Oscar nod). Paul Bettany, who familiarized himself with historical surgical techniques for the role as ship's surgeon Stephen Maturin, provides Jack with a non-military moral compass. Crowe and Bettany, who worked together in A Beautiful Mind, once again mesh well onscreen bringing a genuine camaraderie to the characters' relationship and deliver some of the most powerful and poignant moments in the film. The grizzled supporting cast - composed largely of international unknowns who were chosen for their decidedly non-Hollywood appearance (no perfect teeth or coiffed dos here) - provide the perfect set dressing for the film.

In keeping with the Weir's demands for authenticity, the storm sequences included actual typhoon footage shot off Cape Horn that was later integrated with CGI effects and filming that took place in Fox's Baja soundstage (the one where Titanic was filmed). The final result is a seamless blend of technology and reality. While there is ample action (the final showdown between the Acheron and the Surprise is riveting) the film provides a realistic portrayal of life at sea: we are subjected to the languid and painfully frustrating experience of being stuck in the doldrums, and feel queasy as the ship is bounced about on treacherous swells. And I can't go without mentioning the incredible work that was done to bring the Surprise to life and no CGI can recreate the vertigo inducing as actors flit amongst her spider web riggings ten stories above the deck.

Master and Commander is not the film for audiences seeking to be numbed by hi- tech special effects, paper-thin characters and minimalist plots. It is intended for mature filmgoers who will appreciate an intriguing story that blends historical fact and fiction with solid characterizations, and great cinematography. Weir succeeds in transporting the viewer back into the past and O'Brian's legions of fans will be duly impressed.
Movie Guru Rating
An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant.
  4.5 out of 5 stars

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