Nearly Master of Its Domain

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

On the day it opened, I dragged a fellow cinéaste to see The Truman Show, a movie she knew nothing about. When we left the theater, she said that she knew within a few minutes of the movie’s opening that she was in the hands of a master.

That Jim Carrey vehicle was directed by Aussie Peter Weir, as was the new Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. And like in The Truman Show, with his newest movie Weir establishes his tremendous skill almost immediately.

After the most basic information is offered in the title cards — in 1805, the seas are battlefields, and the H.M.S. Surprise is charged with intercepting and taking over the French warship Acheron — the audience is dropped on board the Surprise, captained by Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), as a mysterious vessel is lurking in the fog, perhaps nothing but maybe an enemy. When the phantom ship attacks, the audience is thrust into battle without the exposition that is de rigueur in Hollywood fare. You might not be able to follow the specifics of what’s happening, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the Surprise is getting the shit pounded out of her.

The enemy vessel turns out to be the fast and sturdy Acheron, and her captain is a crafty fellow. Because the Surprise can’t catch up to its foe, it’s a good thing the French ship seems hell-bent on destroying the British vessel. On the down side, the Acheron is hell-bent on destroying the British vessel.

What follows is a match of wits and seamanship, and it’s exciting and wrenching. The Acheron acquires an almost supernatural quality as the movie goes on, growing in mystery in its absence and — when it is seen — shown only in long shot. The enemy remains inhuman, menacing, and seemingly indestructible; it becomes the elusive white whale to Aubrey’s Ahab, or the Jaws to his Brody.

The plot couldn’t be simpler, but it’s complicated by friendship, loyalty, and personal foibles. Aubrey is an able tactician and a stern commander, but his single-minded pursuit of the Acheron (beyond his orders) has exhausted his crew. The ship’s doctor, Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), is Aubrey’s longtime friend, and the only person who can speak freely to the captain about the perils of continuing the mission. Their relationship is severely tested, but Jack ultimately recognizes Stephen’s wisdom.

The movie’s also a hell of an education, but without ever stooping to awkward or preachy history lesson (as so many historical epics do, e.g., the dreadful Amistad). When the Surprise is damaged in the initial attack, I wondered how the ship could be repaired. It turns out that battle ships, with their crews, are self-healing organisms, and this is expressed visually rather than with clumsy exposition. The fact that much of the crew has barely hit puberty is shocking but not belabored. And while there’s an obvious class structure on board the ship, with a particularly wide gulf between the officers and the rest of the crew, it remains subtext and never becomes an issue; it’s simply a fact of life. In all these instances, Weir shows some amazing restraint, trusting his audience to be intelligent.

Still, the movie falters around the Galapagos Islands, as the plot creaks under the weight of relationship development. Jack promises Stephen that they’ll stop there so the doctor can collect specimens and for the crew to rest, but he breaks that pledge to continue pursuit of the Acheron. Shortly thereafter, an albatross is sighted near the ship, and a crew member accidentally shoots Stephen when trying to kill the bird. The Surprise then returns to Galapagos to allow Stephen to operate on himself, recover, and explore, and for some crew R&R.

I understand the points of this detour — it shows Jack to be a headstrong prick, and then allows him to redeem himself, and it shows Stephen’s fortitude, his medical skills, and, finally, his willingness to sacrifice his interests for the greater good — yet the albatross screams Awkward Narrative Device, and when Stephen is on the side of an island opposite his ship, you just know the Acheron is going to show up.

Beyond that, Stephen’s Galapagos expedition provides Aubrey a crucial lesson about how the Surprise could mimic nature to provide it a critical strategic advantage. This discovery is overplayed so severely that the section seems to have been written by somebody else entirely, and Master and Commander stalls right before its climactic battle.

Certainly, Weir and his crew relied on digital effects for their stunning visuals, but the director seems to have made it a priority to make the digital look organic. There were exactly two moments in the movie when I was aware of the digital wizardry, but otherwise the work is invisible, and the effect is that the audience isn’t pulled out of the narrative or the time period.

Like the digital effects in Master and Commander, Weir has a habit of disappearing into his movies. While name-brand filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese have an instantly identifiable style, Weir is more of a chameleon, adapting beautifully and without ego to the needs of the picture. It’s not an affectation that in at least his last three movies, his name doesn’t appear until the end credits.

The reason for this is simple. Why remind the viewers that they’re seeing a movie when instead you can plunge them into the make-believe world you’ve crafted?

And yet I wish Weir took more credit. I had no interest in seeing Master and Commander until I found out, after weeks of being bombarded with television ads that made no mention of the fact, that Weir directed and co-wrote it. I understand that the built-in audience is fans of Crowe and the Patrick O’Brien books on which the movie is based, but Weir is a master craftsman, and Master and Commander does not disappoint.

Yet it isn’t a great movie; it has too little resonance and can’t transcend it’s one 20-minute-or-so rough patch. But it is great filmmaking, something to be cherished for its narrative intelligence and unparalleled technical prowess.

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