“Look, Hollom. It’s leadership they want.” That’s what Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) tells a midshipman who does nothing when a sailor fails to salute. Then Aubrey makes an unpopular command decision even his best friend argues against: he has the insubordinate sailor flogged.
For me, it’s sequences like the one described above that make “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” come alive. This is an adventure movie aimed at grownups—although I expect many youngsters will like it as well—and it’s the interactions among the men aboard a British warship that held my interest. I see this film as basically a drama in the humanist tradition, yet there are two exciting naval battle sequences and a spectacular storm at sea. But through it all, Captain Aubrey has tea served in small, elegant china cups.
Aubrey is the creation of the late Patrick O’Brian, who wrote a series of 20 novels based on this fascinating character. I haven’t read anything by O’Brian, but after seeing the movie, I learned that “Master and Commander” was the first in that series, while “The Far Side of the World” was the tenth. On Disc Two of the Collector’s Giftpack DVD set, the documentary “In the Wake of O’Brian” indicates that material for the film was drawn from several of the novels in the series and the movie’s plot was based loosely on “The Far Side of the World.” However, that novel took place during the War of 1812 and the nationality of Aubrey’s enemy was American.
In the movie, the story is set in 1805 and England is trying to prevent Napoleon from achieving world domination. When a 44-gun French privateer sets out to prey upon defenseless British whalers, a frigate under Aubrey’s command is dispatched to deal with the problem. Aubrey’s 28-gun warship engages the larger, faster French vessel twice, first off the coast of Brazil and later somewhere near the Galápagos Islands. But the battle sequences aren’t the mindless, soulless, balletic violence of most recent action films—instead they’re the old-fashioned-war-movie, messy kind where characters we care about end up badly wounded or dead.
I liked Russell Crowe in “Gladiator,” “A Beautiful Mind,” and “The Insider,” but I suspect his performance in “Master and Commander” may very well turn out to be his most memorable ever. He plays Captain Jack Aubrey as a courageous leader who inspires confidence in others, but at the same time his demeanor and conversations show that the command decisions he must make take an emotional toll on him. In one scene, Crowe makes Aubrey seem genuinely distressed when he chooses duty over keeping a promise he made to his best friend. In another, Crowe evinces Aubrey’s internal conflict as he abandons a man overboard because the rescue attempt poses too grave a threat to the lives of everyone aboard the ship. Crowe’s Aubrey comes across to me as a heroic figure, but one who is only slightly larger than life.Continued on Next Page: "Master and Commander The Far Side of the World" DVD Review