Russell Crowe to his agent: “More Oscar bait. Now.” Agent, considering his cut of Crowe’s $20 million payday: “Yes, sir.”
A possible scenario, anyway. Thus, Crowe is back in another iconic, self-serious performance, and his beefy mug will stare down upon us from this season’s heroic movie posters until Tom Cruise socks him in the knee and Viggo Mortensen gives him a royal noogie. In the meantime, the sturdy studio staple performs at his peak in the seafaring adventure Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.
Director Peter Weir takes the helm on this adaptation (cowritten with John Collee) of a couple of the twenty intrepid historical novels of the late Patrick O’Brian, and it’s easy to call the result one of this year’s best films — a classic, even, like a C.S. Forester Horatio Hornblower story on steroids. With incredible attention to detail and a bold disregard for marketplace hipness, Weir has unleashed a rollicking adventure film dedicated not to escapism but to restoring some sense of humanity to its digital-delirious audience. Here amid the salt spray, tropical sweat and puddles of blood, relatable characters skirt the shoals of melodrama to drive headlong into unpredictable squalls and maddening torpor. This movie is alive. It’s a shame that O’Brian didn’t live to see it.
Crowe is British Captain “Lucky” Jack Aubrey. Countering Johnny Depp’s swishbuckling flamboyance as this year’s other Captain Jack, Aubrey is a manly man’s man with a penchant for cheap humor. (“To wives and sweethearts,” he proclaims during a toast with his officers. “May they never meet.”)
Once again sharing silver-screen intimacy is Crowe’s imaginary college roommate from A Beautiful Mind, Paul Bettany. As passionate naturalist and ship’s doctor Stephen Maturin, Bettany provides the thoughtful, studious contrast to Crowe’s constant swagger. He’s terrific, fully deserving name-above-the-title billing with Crowe. The characters’ convincingly strained friendship extends well beyond their spotless white blouses and unfolds engagingly throughout this beautifully lensed movie’s measured plot.
Somewhere off the coast of Brazil in 1805, the HMS Surprise is surprised by a sudden attack from a larger, better-armed French privateer, the Acheron. Napoleon’s floating-frog brigade remains a faceless threat for most of the movie while Aubrey repairs the Surprise, gives chase and attempts to capture the superior vessel. It’s a big risk. His surviving crew, including the officers (James D’Arcy, Edward Woodall and Chris Larkin), a dedicated boatswain (Ian Mercer), a hearty coxswain (The Lord of the Rings‘ Billy Boyd, appearing briefly) and plenty of other swain types, remains dedicated. Yet despite the support, the obsessive captain’s course proves increasingly treacherous, involving storms, injuries and really intense ennui aboard the “wooden prison” as it makes its perilous way around Cape Horn toward the mystical Galapagos Islands.
Master and Commander is a stately, old-fashioned tale, boosted by surprisingly apt Mexican locations, effects from Industrial Light and Magic and “bigatures” from New Zealand’s WETA studios. The elements harmonize beautifully. Watching Bettany and Crowe ham it up with cello and fiddle proves a bit absurd, but the soundtrack is gorgeous. No motion picture could do justice to Vaughn Williams’ “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis,” but Weir does his darndest.
This is Weir’s finest film since the brilliant Mosquito Coast, with which it shares many themes: wounded nationalism, the concept of prey becoming predator, the leader who may be going mad. Just as he coaxed out Harrison Ford’s finest work in 1986, Weir works wonders with Crowe. It’s worth viewing both projects to witness the continued evolution of a truly great filmmaker.