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Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World (12A)



Review by: Jack Foley | Rating: Two

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Making of featurette 'The Hundred Days'; Peter Weir on directing; Special effects documentary; Sound design documentary; HBO First Look special; The Last Battle multi-angle studies; Camera setups and split screen vignette; Stills galleries; Interactive sound recording feature; Inside look at I Robot.

SAY what you will about the off-screen antics of Russell Crowe, but there is no denying the Australian actor makes great movies.

Witness his epic turn in Ridley Scott’s Oscar-winning Gladiator, or his ruthless cop in Curtis Hanson’s LA Confidential, or even his own Oscar-winning performance in Ron Howard’s very good, if flawed, A Beautiful Mind, as evidence.

Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World, which has been dubbed by many as Gladiator on the High Seas, is another in that vein - a grand, old-fashioned affair, which effortlessly combines the required spectacle with a refreshingly human element, thus ensuring that its characters never become lost amid the explosions and set pieces.

Directed by Peter Weir, and based upon the best-selling novels by Patrick O’Brian, the film chronicles the adventures of Crowe’s Captain Jack Aubrey and his loyal surgeon and friend, Dr Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), as they relentlessly pursue the French dreadnought vessel, the Acheron, from Brazil, around Cape Horn, to the Galapagos Islands, during the time of the Napoleonic Wars.

The movie begins with the Acheron’s attempted ambush of Aubrey’s vessel, the Surprise, in suitably rousing fashion, before picking up the chase and presenting a riveting and historically accurate depiction of life aboard a warship in the 19th Century.

Weir does an excellent job of combining the requisite thrills with a keen eye for detail, while also injecting much deliberation about the human cost involved in such a struggle.

Most, if not all, of the key crew members are well depicted - from Max Pirkis’ plucky 12-year-old crew member, Lord Blakeney, to Lee Ingleby’s doomed Midshipman, Hollom - but it is Crowe and Bettany, building on their winning chemistry in A Beautiful Mind, who stride through proceedings, playfully vying with each other for the acting honours.

Crowe’s ruthlessly-determined sea-faring legend provides a suitably rugged, but commanding presence, driven by a wounded pride and his loyalty to Lord Nelson’s mandate, while Bettany positively excels as his friend and conscience, providing a sympathetic ear and a fearless word of advice, whenever his captain requires it, even though their views on science and the military threaten to place them at odds.

The scenes between the two, particularly when playing their instruments during lulls in proceedings, provide the movie with its strong emotional core, because they are played with an honesty and conviction rarely seen nowadays.

Much of this is due to the time Weir gives them to build such a strong rapport with both themselves and the audience, but it is also clear that the two stars work well with each other, having now supported each other in back-to-back movies.

And while some of the finer details of proceedings may slow things down considerably from the adrenaline-charged excess of, say, the Summer season, the action - when it arrives - is suitably grandiose and, better still, realistically depicted.

A chase around the storm-lashed Cape Horn is likely to leave you feeling as sea-sick and as drenched as the crew itself, while the climactic battle between the crews of the Surprise and the Acheron is both crowd-pleasingly swashbuckling and bone-crunchingly authentic.

Where this Summer’s Pirates of the Caribbean recalled the tongue-in-cheek revelry of Burt Lancaster’s Crimson Pirate, or classic Errol Flynn, Master & Commander possesses the epic feel of a Mutiny on the Bounty or Ben Hur, in terms of scope and ambition.

Fans of either type of movie have therefore enjoyed something of an embarrassment of riches this year, with Crowe’s effort probably providing the closest insight you will ever get to experiencing life on the High Seas. It is a masterclass, both in terms of acting and directing, which looks set to feature prominently during next year’s Oscar season.

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