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Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Fox // PG-13 // November 14, 2003
List Price: Unknown

Review by Megan Denny | posted November 6, 2003 | E-mail the Author
Master and Commander

Am I alone in thinking that Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is just about the worst movie title this year? The film itself isn't bad, but it's not the Oscar contender the studios would like it to be.

Master and Commander is based on one novel in a series of twenty books written by Patrick O'Brian. Master and Commander is the name of the first book in the series, and The Far Side of the World is the name of one of the later books. But what's wrong with The Far Side of the World by itself? I know! It doesn't imply a franchise.

The studios responsible for releasing Master and Commander originally had it slated for a summer release but reconsidered at the last minute. It's a good thing too because between Pirates of the Caribbean and a dozen other wall-to-wall action films, Master and Commander would have been sunk. For every scene of two ships blasting cannonballs at one another, there are long sequences of dialogue and descriptions of life at sea. The film wasn't ever boring, but, it wasn't exciting either, especially by summer standards.

Interestingly, the studios' official reason for waiting until fall to release the film was because they are hoping for an Oscar nomination for Russell Crowe. Stranger things have happened (such as Crowe's win for Gladiator), but it seems very doubtful that Crowe will pick up another statue for his performance in this film. Crowe's "violin playing" is unfortunately funny and his cries of, "For England!" seem empty and overplayed. For all the scenes in between, Crowe's performance is nothing more than a boot-filler; he brings nothing unique to the role. Mel Gibson, Bruce Willis, or even Robert DeNiro could just as easily have been Capt. Jack Aubrey.

Shot aboard a fully functional re-creation of an 18th century British Navy frigate, Master and Commander is a period drama about a fictional ship called the HMS Surprise. The year is 1805 and while Britain wages war against Napolean, the Surprise is sailing somewhere off the coast of Brazil. It was never made fully clear why the ship is so far from the main battle, but regardless she is there and she is not alone. Out of the mist appears an enemy French ship, the Acheron, and the cannonballs begin to fly.

The cannonball fights, are totally awesome. The wide shots of the two giant ships lobbing cannonballs at each other from close range are great, and so are the interior shots of the actual cannonballs blasting through the hull. For these scenes, director Peter Weir does a fair job of organizing the action and making it clear what's going on. However, in a later scene where one of the ships is boarded by the other, it's terribly confusing as to who is stabbing whom.

Is Master and Commander just Gladiator-at-sea? Certainly not. Unlike the relentless Gladiator, this film possesses a feeling of hope and an interest in action other than fighting. One sequence I found very interesting was that of a young officer who was marked by the crew as a "Jonah." A Jonah is someone who has been cursed by God and, therefore, brings bad luck to the ship. The crew shuns the young man and treats him very badly. In the little wooden world of the ship, the situation quickly intensifies.

Master and Commander is director Peter Weir's first film since The Truman Show and it was surprisingly underwhelming. Though Master and Commander had some nice photography and was, for the most part, interesting from start to finish, it lacked the emotional focus of Weir's previous films. Master and Commander also suffered from a warbling soundtrack. I hope this was only an error with the screening print, but I can't be sure. The dialogue was clear, but the music tended to sound as though water had gotten into the mixer.

Aside from the cannonball scenes and a few interesting discussions about life at sea, there isn't much to recommend Master and Commander. It's not a bad film, but it's no Oscar contender either. If you're looking for a great action film to see on a rainy Saturday.... see Kill Bill again instead.

-Megan A. Denny



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