and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Director: Peter Weir
Cast: Russell Crowe, Billy Boyd, Paul Bettany
Duration: 138 minutes
It comes as something of a surprise to hear that Peter Weir
has made a historical naval epic. Yet, in the thirty years
since his first full-length feature, The Cars that Ate Paris,
Weir has brought his intelligent and refined sensibility to
a wide range of generes, in recent years often taking four
or five years between films. The Cars that Ate Paris was a
small-scale comic horror story. He followed it with Picnic
at Hanging Rock and then his imagining of aboriginal myths
in Sydney, The Last Wave. He has portrayed war in his masterpiece,
Gallipoli, Asian political thriller in The Year of Living
Dangerously, murder mystery among the Amish in Witness, the
retreat from civilisation in Mosquito Coast, creativity in
education in Dead Poets Society. He made only three films
during the 1990s: Green Card, Fearless and The Truman Show.
Master and Commander is quite epic in scope, based on the
seafaring books by Patrick O'Brien. The central character
is a fearless, just, even noble captain, Jack Aubrey. Russell
Crowe brings his best dignity to the role, as impressive as
his performance as Gladiator. He is not perfect, becomes obsessed
with his pursuit of a French ship through the Atlantic, round
Cape Horn and into the Pacific as far as the Galapagos Islands,
but tries to admit and rectify mistakes. The setting is 1805,
the aftermath of Nelson's victories with the British navy's
goal of preventing a Napoleonic invasion of England. Weir
stages the battles at sea with vigour.
What is important for the film is its detailed picture of
day by day life on board ship, the camaraderie, rivalry (and
superstition) amongst the crew, the bonds between the officers
(and the young nobility who do their apprenticeship at sea).
It is tough but not as soul-destroying as is sometimes presented
in more melodramatic stories. We feel that we have been to
sea here and understood what was required of the seamen.
The other principal character, played by Paul Bettany, is
the ship's doctor, a naturalist with an avid ambition to record
species of plants, birds and animals. The Galapagos islands
are a paradise for him (and the film was shot there) but he
has to face the realities of Britain being at war and his
principal duty being to serve and obey the captain. Captain
and doctor are good friends, can speak honestly to each other
- and relax by playing chamber music together.
An impressive and interesting film.