2003 / Best Director / Best Picture

Film #415: Master and Commander – The Far Side of the World (2003)

Another love of the Academy’s older members is an epic swashbuckling adventure that harkens back to the films of the 1930s. They were given this in Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World; an adaptation of three books by Patrick O’Brian chronicling the Napoleonic War ventures of Captain ‘Lucky’ Jack Aubrey. In the lead role of Aubrey, Russell Crowe wasn’t the recipient of a Best Actor nod but the film did receive ten Oscar nominations, a tally only bettered by that year’s Best Picture winner.

Set in 1805, the film focuses on Aubrey’s ship the HMS Surprise and its pursuit of the French privateer Acheron. The film’s main themes are about the notions of hierarchy and tradition on the ship and how sometimes these can cause problems for the crew. The main relationship the film explores is that between Aubrey and the ship’s doctor Stephen Maturin who are presented as old friends. The pair argue about Jack’s occasional pig-headedness and Stephen’s love of nature as opposed to his friend’s preoccupation with warfare. In fact, there isn’t a lot of action in Master and Commander, which I feel is rather a good thing as it allows the audience to get a feel for what it’s really like being on the ship. Peter Weir explores every aspect of the Surprise from the crew’s quarters to the Captain’s table and punctuates the action-packed scenes with some quieter moments. Obviously, the final twenty minutes or so is devoted to the Surprise’s final attack on the Acheron in which they disguise themselves as a whaler to avoid detection. Weir and co-screenwriter John Collee build up the tension in this final scene perfectly and so the pay-off is even more satisfactory. However, I’m still not quite sure what the film’s final scene achieved and it made me believe that some people were clamouring for a Master and Commander sequel.

Of the ten nominations Master and Commander was awarded by the Academy it only won two; for Cinematography and Sound Editing. I’d certainly say that these were the two elements of Master and Commander that were the best especially Russell Boyd’s cinematography which I believe was integral to the narrative of the film. Boyd takes the audience into every part of the ship and captures every skirmish perfectly and as a result gets us involved in the action. Meanwhile sound designer Richard King went out of his way to record realistic sounds particularly for the storm and battle scene. In fact I found all of Master and Commander’s period detail to be spot on from the costumes worn by each crew member to the construction of the HMS Surprise itself. I suppose one could say that at times Master and Commander is a film that favours style over substance as the plot was quite easy to follow. But that’s not to say that Master and Commander was poorly written as I felt that I knew all of the major characters and their key motivations. Furthermore I found that Russell Crowe was the ideal choice to play Aubrey due to his commanding presence. Whilst I didn’t think the role required a much range from him as something like The Insider I found him to be utterly believable a the conflicted captain. Oddly Paul Bettany, who played Charles in A Beautiful Mind, played opposite Crowe once again here as Stephen. Due to this I spent a good twenty minutes trying to decide whether or not the doctor was in fact a real character or just a confidant that the Captain had imagined. It was only when Stephen started to interact with other crew members that I believed he was real and by the end Bettany had turned him into a compelling member of the crew. Although old-fashioned in its storytelling; Master and Commander’s visual prowess made it stand out from the crowd and overall I felt it was deserving of its place among the pantheon of Oscar-nominated movies.


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