It is my belief that "Master and Commander" has been wrongly sold. Pre-release publicity (the obligatory trailers, online and print media campaigns et al) will have you believe that the film is merry entertainment of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" kind; they'll make you think it is a rollicking adventure on the high seas where fun and frolic rules and eye-popping special effects reign supreme. No surprise then that the film has disappointed those that expected the usual trappings of commercial cinema. Irrespective of the film's $120 million budget (anything above $50 million nowadays is considered pure studio-bred fowl) "Master and Commander" is a thoughtful character study of a measured pace. Consider this: there is no music for the first half-hour or so, just sound effects; a dialogue-driven narrative replaces the conventional episodic story-telling; and action is determined by choice not option. These are the devices that make this film special and these are also weapons which turn off those looking for a mere Thursday night diversion.
Based on the novels of Patrick O'Brian, the film is set in 1805 during the Napoleonic Wars. It features Russell Crowe as Jack Aubrey, Captain of the British HMS, who is given the importunate task of intercepting (and destroying) the Acheron, a sturdier and faster French warship with greater fire power. Aubrey is a fair and driven leader with a profound sense of duty. But whenever his patriotism veers towards obsession, his closest friend and ship surgeon Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany) acts as his conscience and intercedes as the voice of reason. In the midst of the formidable conflict with the Acheron which threatens to put the 197-strong crew in harm's way, we are treated to an excellent interplay between the two men. Their debates and consequences thereof expatiates the difference between their individual ideologies. Their diverse manner makes their characters all the more compelling. When a crew member reproaches a meek midshipman, Maturin insinuates a more diplomatic overture as punishment. Aubrey, on the other hand, has the insolent shipmate mercilessly whipped because this will act as a deterrent to future insubordination. If you really look at it Aubrey and Maturin are – symbolically - parents to the unquestioning crew: the former is perhaps the father with his strict adherence to traditional values; the latter may very well be the mother, endearing in demeanour. The crew – their children - trusts both of them (especially Capt. Aubrey) implicitly. And so, their faith is the crux of the story.
It is impressive to find Russell Crowe slip so deeply inside another memorable character. Will he get an Oscar nomination for this role? He has already won, so I doubt it. Paul Bettany, however, is a sure-fire candidate for the golden man. If there is any justice in this world, he will get his "Best Supporting Actor" trophy and without prejudice. So should writer/director Peter Weir, a man of limitless imagination. Weir shot footage of an actual typhoon specifically for use in the film and employed uncommon camera angles to heighten the fierce perils at sea. Such is his commitment to authenticity that he also bravely infuses maritime jargon into the dialogues without using overt exposition. Little wonder that "Master and Commander" will be considered a moody period piece by some. Others should hail it as the thinking man's blockbuster - minus the popcorn of course. - Adnan Khan