Fri, Nov 28, 2003 - Page 20 News List

Master of the Sea (and the French)

Russel Crowe shines in `Master and Commander,' which is an entertaining movie from Peter Weir

By A. O. Scott  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Jack Aubrey's ship is part of a larger bureaucratic system that defines the limits of his autonomy and the particulars of his duty; but he is, within these parameters, free to be creative, even somewhat reckless, in pursuit of his designated goals. His work is occasionally brutal and dangerous, but he clearly loves it; an almost gleeful smile plays across Crowe's meaty face as each battle draws near. Passionate as he is about his vocation, Aubrey is not an utter workaholic. He likes to get drunk and regale the other officers with bad jokes, to play the violin, and to make eyes at a Brazilian beauty who shows up for a few silent seconds to remind the audience of the existence of women.

Who needs them, anyway? Jack does write letters home to his wife, and makes a ribald toast in the officers' mess, but the Surprise is a world of unstinting and diverse manliness. In the best war-movie tradition, Master and Commander is in essence a study of male camaraderie under duress.

The motley ensemble of officers and ordinary seamen display vivid flashes of individuality as they go about their shipboard business. Especially fine are George Innes as a toothless old-timer, Robert Pugh as the Surprise's rotund and pompous Master and Max Pirkis as Blakeney, a young, aristocratic midshipman.

At the center of the picture is the friendship between Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, the ship's surgeon, played by Paul Bettany.

Bettany, sensitive, quick-witted and easygoing, makes a fine sidekick for the fierce Crowe, and this is his second tour of duty. In A Beautiful Mind his character, John Nash's imaginary roommate, was a man of letters to Crowe's man of numbers; this time, he is a man of ideas, and as such the perfect foil for Crowe's man of action. Aubrey and Maturin, who play stately cello and fiddle duets in the captain's cabin after meals, argue about the nature of power and the competing claims of scientific inquiry (Maturin is a naturalist as well as a physician) and military duty.

Not that Maturin is a sissy: he can handle a sword when he needs to, and, in one of Weir's many dazzling close-up set pieces, he performs abdominal surgery on himself. Nor is Aubrey simply a brute; he shows both a keen tactical mind and surprising delicacy of feeling. But he is, above all, the embodiment of English practicality (Maturin's background, by the way, is Irish and Catalan), ruled by instinct and habit rather than intellect.

Weir's direction is appropriately old-fashioned, which is not to say that it is staid. It is rare, nowadays, to see a story of such scale and complexity filmed with such clarity, swiftness and attention to detail. O'Brian's command of nautical lore and maritime history was always remarkable, but it also tended to oversaturate his narratives with data. In Weir's version, every nail, every rope, every teacup and brass button is in more or less its place, but rather than feeling fussy and antiquarian, as so many Hollywood costume pageants do, Master and Commander hums with humor, passion and life.

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