DASHING DERRING-DO

Peter Weir's high-seas yarn has red-blooded swashbuckling for the lads and Russell Crowe striking manly poses on the prow for the lasses

RICK GROEN

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Directed by Peter Weir
Written by Peter Weir and John Collee
Starring Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, Max Pirkis
Classification: 14A
Rating: ***

There's a general rule in war movies: The more distant the battle, the more flamboyant the bluster.

As the period in the piece strays further from the present and deeper into history, a picture feels less need to apply today's moral sanctions and a lot freer to soar along on the windy rhetoric of "King and country."

Welcome, then, to the high seas of 1805 and the higher palaver of Master and Commander. But what fetching palaver it is. Beautifully directed and acted, sumptuously costumed and rigged, with no less a man than Russell Crowe filling out the Captain's britches, this is mythmaking all dressed up and demanding a snappy salute -- heck, it's a Boy's Own adventure to die for.

Better yet, the old mythmaking comes with a contemporary look: the hard veneer of realism. That's true of the Patrick O'Brian novels that inspired the script, drenched as they are in his meticulously researched details of past naval life. And it's even truer of Peter Weir's cinematic version. If you doubt that, just wait for the crackerjack opening scene -- a slow evolution from moody darkness to fiery action, it weds the manners of Horatio Hornblower with the menace of Black Hawk Down.

A printed crawl sets the stage: France under Napoleon is taking the war to the water, determined to waive the rule about Britannia ruling the waves. Cut to the deck of the HMS Surprise, where two very callow officers are peering nervously into a grey soup of dense fog. The sea is still, they are jumpy. One thinks he sees an ominous shadow, and Captain Jack Aubrey gets summoned. Too late. The Surprise is shocked by the sudden apparition -- an armed monster rising from the deep -- of the French warship Acheron, mere feet away and loaded cannons at the ready.

Cue the scintillating action. In one of his lesser-known films, Fearless, Weir began with an extraordinary sequence that captured the claustrophobic horror of being trapped inside a ruptured airplane poised to crash. His feat here is equally evocative -- the swirling chaos, the numbing fear, when the human fodder is stuffed into a wooden vessel and the blasting cannon is showing no mercy. Of course, with more than two hours of running time left, the wily Captain Jack must make his artful escape as darkness falls, leaving Weir to punctuate the events with a gorgeous shot: night and fog and the silent sea conjoined in a shimmering tableau worthy of Turner.

So the battle lines are drawn, and what follows is really just a tall-masted chase flick, supplemented by a little bit of theme and a whole lot of sailors. In fact, hard upon the opening carnage, the principal theme arrives in the cerebral person of ship's doctor Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany). As the man of science charged with cleaning up after the man of war, the good doc is meant to be our modern conscience, and his ongoing tensions with the Captain are supposed to give the film its frisson of significance. Through him, the tough questions get asked -- like when does duty turn into obsession, the commander into a despot, the patriot into a scoundrel?

Nice try, but the deck is definitely stacked in this debate. Between them, there's too much harmony and not enough dissonance. It's literal harmony, since the pair keep retiring below decks to soothe their savage breasts with a violin-and-cello duet. What's more, although a talented performer, Bettany is simply overmatched. I mean, we're talking Russell Crowe here -- a fine figure of a male and, whether he's a gladiator bloodying the Romans or a Yank battling the tobacco giants, an actor who travels impressively well. In this journey, the guy wears the uniform, the accent and the derring-do with consummate panache. Have him strike a muscular pose on the ship's prow, which Weir does more than once, and the manly sight puts that wussy DiCaprio to titanic shame.

Yes sir, even when he's flogging them for their own good, the men all respect and love Captain Jack. They had better -- there's nary a women to be seen in the entire picture. The one time the Surprise touches land, it's for a pre-Darwinian visit to the Galapagos Islands -- a paradise for the naturalists, but just more hell on the libido. No women, then, but plenty of children are on hand. What's a Boy's Own adventure without a quorum of boys -- cabin boys and fuzzy-cheeked midshipmen, in this nautical case, headed by a little blond Lord (Max Pirkis) who loses his right arm but not the right stuff. The kid's got salt. Speaking of which, don't forget the old salt, the grizzled soothsayer right out of Melville who's always making dire prophecies about "the devil ship." He's a withered icon of the genre, and you gotta love him: das coot in das boot.

Meanwhile, Weir is mastering and commanding his own hardware -- a mix of actual ships, model replicas and computer imagery -- with an aplomb as stylish as his star's. The special effects are seamless, and all the more effective for being unobtrusive. Watch for the brutal storm when the Surprise rounds the Horn; it's a visually harrowing treat. Later, the ship enters a patch of dead calm and, alas, so does the story. About the two-thirds mark, the picture starts to drift, waiting around for the big blow of the climax, the showdown with the Acheron. But the finale feels less than grand, as if Weir, like us, has been out too long on the voyage. He saves his worst for last.

Still, his best is easily good enough to stoke the adventurous fires in red-blooded lads of every age. As for red-blooded lasses, they might have to make do with a more static view of heaven: Crowe in the crow's nest, steely gaze fixed on the far horizon, the romantic Captain of their heart's fluttering fate.


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