It would not be my first choice, if I were head of a major studio, to set my big action picture almost entirely on the H.M.S. Surprise, an English naval warship sailing the Atlantic Ocean during the Napoleonic wars in 1805. But if I had to pick any one Hollywood star to bring depth, credibility, and box office numbers to a movie with seemingly little chance at any of these, it would only be Russell Crowe.
Look at the facts. Three of his four last pictures have been nominated for Best Picture, and the two that carried his name above the title, won. He can play way older, as a tobacco executive-turned-whistleblower (“The Insider”) or a mentally disturbed and introverted mathematician (“A Beautiful Mind”) or a fierce warrior in ancient Rome (“Gladiator”). He won a Best Actor statue for a GLADIATOR movie, for Chrissakes!
So it is no surprise (lame pun intended!) to report that Crowe carries the entire film solidly and capably on his shoulders.
There are twenty books in the popular “Master and Commander” series, which gives reason, I suppose, for the film’s ridiculously long title. With director Peter Weir (“Witness,” “The Truman Show”) attached, “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” has become something a little more interesting than an action picture on a boat.
Weir has captured the wild sense of discovery of the early 19th century, before one could view photographs of everything the world has to offer. These men often treaded waters that were rarely seen by human eyes, if not charted.
He also succeeds in illustrating the tedium of sailing on such a long mission. The crew gets restless, and all sorts of little dramas play themselves out. Crowe’s mission becomes a sort of personal vendetta, and his decision to keep following the ship affects the lives of every man he commands.
By being patient and attending to detail, Weir succeeds in immersing the viewer in the period, and that is when the film is most fascinating.
“Master and Commander,” really only has two action scenes and they are handled with great skill. No fancy-pants editing technique is needed to get across the humanity of two giant battleships shooting cannonballs at close range at one another. When one ship is crippled, the men of the other one race across wooden planks with pistols and swords to meet their enemy face-on. And Weir chooses to shoot it up close, putting you right in the middle of the situation.
At the movie’s core, however, are the scenes between Crowe and Paul Bettany, who plays the boat’s doctor. It’s their philosophy and friendship that balances the ship and keeps things together under the harshest of conditions. Both actors are quite believable, and quite good.
“Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” is an old-fashioned motion picture truly out of its time, and that is a huge compliment.