'Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World': THR's 2003 Review

Photofest
Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany in 2003's 'Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.'
Masterful direction and commanding performances make this epic voyage highly see-worthy.

On Nov. 14, 2003, 20th Century Fox unveiled the naval epic Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World in theaters. The drama went on to be nominated for 10 Oscars at the 76th Academy Awards, winning for cinematography and sound editing. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below: 

With the Walt Disney Co.'s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl having profitably tested the waters for the return of the high-seas adventure, the timing couldn't be better for the arrival of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.

Skillfully adapted from the meticulously detailed historical novels by Patrick O'Brian, the epic adventure, set during the Napoleonic Wars, boasts at least two artists at the top of their respective games — namely filmmaker Peter Weir and actor Russell Crowe —collaborating on a constantly compelling picture that pays as much attention to the quieter aspects of character motivation as it does to those rousing action sequences.

It's been 10 years since producer Samuel Goldwyn Jr. first initiated the project, and it's taken no fewer than three studios to bring it to fruition, but the results are certainly worth the wait.

In addition to drawing those male legions of faithful O'Brian readers, the film, with its themes of duty and friendship, not to mention Crowe's Oscar-ready performance, should have no trouble attracting equal numbers of females despite the genre's inherent boys-club appeal.

Incorporating principal characters first introduced in O'Brian's Master and Commander but also borrowing the narrative outline from the 10th installment of the 20-book opus, The Far Side of the World, the circa 1805 adventure is set almost in its entirety aboard the HMS Surprise, a British Navy ship commanded by the celebrated Capt. "Lucky" Jack Aubrey (Crowe).

When the vessel is badly damaged and many of his men are injured in a surprise attack by the Acheron, Aubrey is determined to bring down the formidable French adversary, but his decision to do so takes him and his crew on a perilous chase that prompts the ship's doctor and Jack's ally, Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), to question whether his mission is professionally or personally motivated.

That call puts a serious strain on their longtime friendship, but Aubrey is prepared to stand by his decision, whatever the ultimate cost.

Along the ship's course from the coast of Brazil to the remote shores of the Galapagos Islands, there's no shortage of risk involved — most notably a treacherous trek through the violent waters of Cape Horn that makes The Perfect Storm look like a dip in the pool by comparison.

Not since Hitchcock's Lifeboat has a film that takes place almost completely on the water been so absolutely involving.

Master and Commander may be set entirely at sea, but Weir has never been more grounded as a filmmaker.

Combining that eye for atmosphere and period detail he demonstrated in some of his earlier pictures — like Gallipoli and Picnic at Hanging Rock — with such later, character-driven pieces as Witness and Dead Poets Society, Weir is a natural for the O'Brian books.

And Crowe is every bit as much a natural for the role of Lucky Jack. An actor with a true affinity for playing conflicted heroes, Crowe allows the viewer to experience every vulnerable nuance as he wrestles with his conscience to do the right thing.

Proving to be an equally adept philosophical sparring partner is Bettany's Maturin — the man of science versus the man of action. Having worked together before in Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind, Bettany and Crowe provide a rich emotional undercurrent for those incredible visuals.

The latter has been brilliantly provided by a number of Weir's regular collaborators, including director of photography Russell Boyd, who does some spectacular work here, editor Lee Smith and even costume designer (and Weir's wife) Wendy Stites, who follows the script's painstaking attention to detail right down to the smallest stitch. Composers Iva Davies, Christopher Gordon and Richard Tognetti furnish the stirring nautical score. — Michael Rechtshaffen, originally published on Nov. 4, 2003.