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

Fri, Nov 28, 2003 - Page 20

"Do you want to see a guillotine in Piccadilly? Do you want your children to grow up singing the Marseillaise?" This is Jack Aubrey, commander of HMS Surprise, rousing the patriotism of his men as they prepare to engage a faster, larger French vessel somewhere off the coast of South America. This ship is England, he proclaims, and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, which opens nationwide today, makes his point with magnificent vigor and precision.

This stupendously entertaining movie, directed by Peter Weir and adapted from two of the novels in Patrick O'Brian's 20-volume series on Aubrey's naval exploits, celebrates an idea of England that might have seemed a bit corny even in 1805, when the action takes place. The Surprise is a stiffly hierarchal place of pomp and ritual that is nonetheless consecrated to ideals of fair play, decency and honor and ruled by a man whose claim on the words in the film's title comes, if not by divine right, then at least by demi-godlike force of character.

Of course, life on the Surprise is not all high-minded talk and principled action. Winston Churchill once said that the foundations of British naval tradition consisted of rum, sodomy and the lash. Master and Commander settles for two out of three.

It is tempting to read some contemporary geopolitical relevance into this film, which appears at a moment when some of the major English-speaking nations are joined in a military alliance against foes we sometimes need to be reminded do not actually include France.

The Surprise may be England, but Master and Commander is something of an all-Anglosphere collaboration. Both the director and the star, Russell Crowe, are Australian (Crowe by way of New Zealand), and no fewer than three American studios (Universal, Miramax and 20th Century Fox) paid for the production. The spectacle of British imperial self-defense has been made more palatable for American audiences by a discreet emendation of the literary source: the story has been moved back seven years from the War of 1812, when the British were fighting ... but never mind. Bygones are bygones.

And in any case, the appeal of O'Brian's books to modern audiences goes deeper than their coincidental intersection with present-day diplomacy or politics. Since 1970, when the first instalment was published, the series has gathered a fervent and loyal following that mere topicality could hardly account for. Weir's movie, which follows Jack's command of sharp word and quick action in transporting O'Brian's information-packed pages onto the screen, distills the essence of Aubrey's charisma.

Aubrey (Crowe) is an ideal personification of modern executive authority -- the Harry Potter of the managerial class. His adventures are salted with arcane technical lore and administrative wisdom that resonate deeply with even the most landlubberly middle managers and office workers. Master and Commander, were it not a movie, could be a Powerpoint seminar advertised in an airline magazine: Leadership Secrets of the Royal Navy.

This is not by any means to slight Weir's accomplishment (or, for that matter, O'Brian's); it is, rather, to explain why, in his expert hands, the smallest details of shipboard behavior become so breathlessly absorbing. The battle sequences are filmed with impressive coherence and rigor, but Master and Commander is, if anything, most thrilling between skirmishes, when the complex system of authority and deference that runs the Surprise -- and the personality traits needed to keep it running -- is at the center of attention.

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.