Winner - Best Cinematography
Winner - Best Sound Editing
20th CENTURY FOX (2003)
Director: Peter Weir
Starring: Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, Billy Boyd, James D’Arcy, Chris Larkin, Edward Woodall
Based on a collection of stories by author Patrick O’Brian, Master and Commander thrusts us into the battles of the Napoleonic War in the early-1800’s. HMS Surprise, captained by steadfast Jack Aubrey (Crowe) is ordered to engage the French battleship Acheron – with instructions to capture, sink or burn it in order to prevent Napoleon gaining a critical stronghold on the war.
The Acheron, however, has other ideas and the formidable ship ambushes Aubrey and the Surprise, causing large scale damage whilst receiving next to none itself. Managing to evade capture, Aubrey declares the fight must go on, the ship must be repaired at sea and Napoleon cannot destroy the British whaling fleet and gain victory. For Aubrey, Surprise must fight Acheron again.
On board with Aubrey is his faithful Doctor and friend, Stephen Maturin (Bettany), First Lieutenant Thomas Pullings (D’Arcy), Second Lieutenant William Mowett (Woodall) and the young Lord Blakeney (Max Pirkis), all are accustomed to Aubrey’s single mindedness towards following orders and victory and all willing to follow their captain. Maturin, however, would also like the opportunity to research the Galapagos Islands for their fauna and wildlife – an opportunity oft mentioned. The bond between Aubrey and Maturin is apparent, even with both being polar opposites of each other.
Written, produced and directed by Peter Weir, Master and Commander delivers an epic sea adventure choosing to focus on the men aboard the vessels rather than the action. There are two battles during the movie, discounting the furious clashes against the elements, and the movie goes to lengths to distil the feeling of isolation and the spirit of those involved. It’s very much an epic tale that doesn’t lose sight of the humans involved.
The set pieces are astonishingly accurate – sections of the film were shot using an actual ship on the ocean, others recreated in California. As the movie is primarily set at sea, save for the previously mentioned sojourn to the Galapagos Islands, the ship becomes a character in itself. It’s not a place I’d fancy being during a heavy storm. The creaking of the sails is painfully present, and the destruction of the ship’s wooden exteriors during the attacks has a menacing decisiveness to it.
In casting Russell Crowe, Weir cast the perfect leader, Crowe’s magnetic appeal is evident in every scene. The genuine respect from his crew seems to radiate from the cast, and his restraint is admirably performed. One of Hollywood’s greats delivers once more. Paul Bettany provides key exposition throughout and his calm, introspective opposite to Aubrey is brilliantly played. The supporting cast all turn in fine performances to create a wonderful ensemble, including young Max Pirkis, his growth thanks to Maturin and Aubrey’s directions is crucial, allowing us to see the best sides of all. Additionally and interestingly, this is one of only 120 movies to feature an all-male cast (uncredited female extras appear on the Islands)
As the movie reaches its middle act, it drops anchor somewhat and the pacing suffers slightly. As Aubrey plots his strategy, things slow down temporarily. The narrative soon picks up as injuries begin to pile up and a Jonah (a ‘cursed’ shipmate) is uncovered, before leading into the grand final battle – at sea and on board the Surprise and Acheron. Weir ensures the action is tight and hard-hitting, not flinching from the violence of hand-to-hand combat and the claustrophobic cabins provide a fitting set piece for the anticipated fight. The visual effects employed are fantastic and rightly nominated by the Academy.
Nominated for 10 Academy Awards (including Best Picture), Master and Commander was unfortunately released in the same Awards year as Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King which swept the boards that year. It did pick up two wins in the Sound Editing and Cinematography categories – well deserved as the sound and visual feel of the movie is first class (the movie is draped with baroque and classical numbers)
Master and Commander provides a wonderful ‘old classic’ movie feeling, never straying into modern territories and remaining ensconced in its time. Featuring a thundering performance from Crowe and the supporting legions, the movie sets sail to victory and never really lets up. An intelligent tale with a fine twist at the end, the adventures could continue on and on for years to come.
Forget Pirates of the Caribbean, this is the sea adventure you’re looking for.
July 11th 2017