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Review: Crowe film is 'Master'-ful

Movie succeeds as epic and as character study

By Paul Clinton
CNN Reviewer

Crowe
Russell Crowe in "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World."

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(CNN) -- "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" is a masterful and majestic film that leaps off the screen.

The film, set during the Napoleonic Wars and based on a series of novels by Patrick O'Brian, is beautifully crafted by director Peter Weir and superbly acted by Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany and an exceptional supporting cast. It's also so true to life -- something vitally important to O'Brian's fans -- you can almost taste the sea spray splashing on to the deck.

Indeed, "Master and Commander" has an almost obsessive determination for historical accuracy. Every detail, from the the ropes used on the masts to the silverware used by the ship's officers, appears authentic.

Almost all of the action takes place at sea (actually in the same water tank in Baja California used for "Titanic"), and you can really feel the claustrophobic atmosphere on the small British ship, the HMS Surprise.

Crowe and Bettany -- united again after their Oscar-winning film "A Beautiful Mind" -- play, respectively, Capt. Jack Aubrey, the commander of the Surprise, and his best friend, the ship's doctor, Stephen Maturin. Their mission is to capture or destroy a French battle ship, the Acheron. This results in a high-stakes race across two oceans as Aubrey risks his crew and his ship in a relentless pursuit that could easily end in disaster.

Expertise

Master and Commander
Paul Bettany, who plays Dr. Stephen Maturin, is a perfect match for Crowe.

The film begins and ends with major battles at sea.

In the first encounter, Aubrey is taken unawares by the Acheron, and his ship is badly damaged. Afterward, his crew assumes they'll be heading home, but Capt. Aubrey has other plans.

Although the Surprise is desperately in need of repairs and the Acheron has twice the men and twice the guns, Aubrey is determined to bring the enemy down. His single-mindedness drives the action from the coast of Brazil, around Cape Horn and on to the Galapagos Islands.

The second encounter between the Surprise and the Acheron is the film's climax, and you can probably guess the results.

In addition to being the film's director, Weir is a producer, and the co-screenwriter along with John Collee. Collee is also a medical doctor, so his expertise helped shape the scenes involving Bettany's character.

Small touches

Master and Commander
The battle scenes in "Master and Commander" don't make up much of the movie, but pack a punch.

As always, Crowe grabs the screen and never lets go. But the casting of Bettany was equally important, because he's gifted enough to go toe-to-toe with Crowe and hold his own on screen.

In many ways, this big, epic film is really a small drama about the relationship between these two men. Their friendship is a study in contrasts: Aubrey is a larger-than-life man of action, very much a man of his time, while Maturin is more modern, a forward-thinking intellectual who chooses his words and actions very carefully.

Special kudos should also go to 13-year-old Max Pirkis, who plays midshipman Lord Blakeney. His character is a main player in this story, and Pirkis pulls it off with aplomb.

It should be noted that since we never see the enemy up close -- except for a couple of short scenes, the French ship is always a distant evil force that drives the action on board the Surprise -- all the drama and tension takes place on the British ship, where the men battle not only the French, but also their own fears and superstitions. So while promoted as an "action/epic," "Master and Commander" also has the innate feeling of a character-driven drama.

That's not to say the action sequences aren't exciting. The clashes at sea are brilliantly filmed and quite colorful. But the characters and dialogue are much much richer and more detailed then your average high-sea adventure flick.

In the crowded ocean of Oscar wannabes, "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" may or may not have the sea legs to grab the gold, but it's a film well worth seeing.

One note for O'Brian fans: Though bits and pieces of the story come from many of the author's 20 Aubrey books, the main sources were the novels "Master And Commander" and "The Far Side of the World" -- hence the film's long title.

"Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" opens nationwide on Friday, November 14, and is rated PG-13.


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