Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

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(2003) ★★★★★

Film4: Tuesday 29 December, 6.10pm

Russell Crowe as HMS Surprise skipper Captain Jack Aubrey, perilously close to losing his ‘Lucky Jack’ tag after being caught unawares by French warship Acheron off the coast of Brazil. It is 1805, two years into the Napoleonic wars. Against the judgment of comrade-at-arms and ship’s surgeon Paul Bettany, Crowe wants to give chase – even though the Acheson is bigger, faster and better equipped than his battered old frigate. “What is it with this man?” wonders Crowe. “Did I kill a relative of his in battle, perhaps?” Bettany speaks plainly, as ever: “He fights like you, Jack.” With the exception of a Darwin-like stop-off in the Galapagos for a natural history breather, all the action in this handsome saga takes place aboard ship. And, unlike Ron Howard’s new Moby-Dick origins story, In the Heart of the Sea, this is a thrillingly immersive experience.

We are there on board the Surprise, up the rigging, in the eye of the storm, even witnessing a couple of Knick-style surgeries by Bettany. You can taste the salt, you can smell the slops. In the heart of the sea. The creaking quarters, vulnerable to the elements and terrifyingly splintered by thunderous cannon fire, offer ample evidence of Samuel Johnson’s considered judgment. Being at sea, he famously noted, was like being in prison – with the added danger of drowning.

The timber-shivering excitement – adapted from a couple of Patrick O’Brian’s seafaring best-sellers – is vigorously staged by Gallipoli director Peter Weir, and the performances from an exceptional cast command attention. In particular, Antipodean star Crowe (born in New Zealand, brought up in Australia) again impresses with his ability to invest an impulsive man of action with a fierce sense of moral integrity.

Master and Commander was the high-water mark of his six-year peak: from 1997-2003, Crowe starred in L.A. Confidential, The Insider, the Oscar-winning Gladiator and the Bafta-winning A Beautiful Mind. Crowe himself liked Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man (2005) but the only outstanding film he’s made since Master and Commander is Kevin Macdonald’s State of Play in 2009. Happily, Noah and The Water Diviner indicate a recent return to form after a string of indifferent script choices. Spare a thought for the gifted Weir, though. He’s directed only 14 features (the last was 2010’s The Way Back) and four Oscar nominations – Witness, Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show, Master and Commander – yielded him nothing.

Certificate: 12
Duration: 138min

IMDB – Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

TMDB – Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Rotten Tomatoes – Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Other Showings Date & Time
Film4 Monday, 4 January at 6:25PM