The late Englishman Patrick O'Brian crafted the series of books from which the stories of Master and Commander are taken, a body of work The New York Times once complimented as "the best historical novels ever written." In his exploration of cultural mores and manners, O'Brian has been likened to Jane Austen; in his soulful seafaring, he's mentioned in the same breath as Homer. While few of those strengths merit a mention in the movie's fall-blockbuster marketing campaign, they linger in the simple poetry of Master and Commander's spare script and in Weir's nearly flawless directorial eye.
The Napoleonic-Era narrative is simple: the H.M.S. Surprise, ably captained by Lucky Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), has orders to pursue a French privateer and put her out of commission by any means necessary. The French ship is, of course, faster, stronger and better armed, and pursuit quickly begins to exact a high toll -- perhaps too high. But the thrill of the chase (and it is, frequently, quite thrilling) only serves as a backdrop for the real dramas of the film, the evocation of everyday life on a 19th-century warship in the British Navy and the tale of an unlikely friendship.
One of Weir's greatest talents as a director is his ability to almost effortlessly create a sense of cinematic infinity in otherwise claustrophobic quarters: the insulated, endlessly textured world of Witness' Amish community, the so-fake-it's-real plastic bubble of The Truman Show. He makes the bare-bones story and broad characterizations of Master and Commander work for him, spending much of the time artfully grounding the audience in the world of the sea -- the constant, comforting creak of the hull, the controlled chaos of the deck as the crew carries out their orders, the feel of the swirling fog and crashing waves. And he buttresses the simplicity of the script he co-wrote with dazzling shot selections, gritty battle scenes and intelligent casting.
The audience does not need to be shown why the crew so slavishly worships Lucky Jack; Crowe simply is that man. He is confident, slightly mad as any good ship's captain must be, and all too human -- and we know this not from any exposition, but from the glint in his eye and the steel in his stride. Even with an Academy Award now on his resume, the abrasive Crowe is strangely -- and unfairly -- easy to dismiss as a talent, but his portrayal of Aubrey (indeed the film as a whole) is a startling lesson in the richness that lies in the minimalist approach.
Still, if Crowe's Aubrey commands respect, it is Bettany's Maturin that commands the screen. Finding himself once again playing second fiddle to Crowe (or, actually, cello this time, as Aubrey and Maturin indulge in occasional musical interludes throughout their adventures), Bettany is the perfect stand-in for us, the audience. His ship's doctor is along for the ride, but not really one of the gang; he's a naturalist and a philosopher in a warrior's world. Sweating with righteous indignation, he's petulant when his scientific plans are hijacked for the good of the Crown and a fearsome-if-reluctant fighter when his back's to the bridge.
Although each are allowed to defy categorization from time to time, Aubrey is set up as a man of action, Maturin as a man of thought. Nowhere is the difference between the two made more plain than in their relationship to the young midshipman Blakeney, played with presence and purity by 13-year-old newcomer Max Pirkis. Blakeney idolizes Aubrey, but he also has high regard for Maturin, saying at one point that he wants to be like them both and become a "fighting naturalist." And so the connections crisscross, as intricate as the rigging of the H.M.S. Surprise.
Yet this is an action-adventure and a first-rate one at that. There isn't one thing about this near-masterpiece that does not ring true. In brutal battle scenes, cannonballs rip through wooden beams as sailors labor at swordplay. The film is gorgeously shot, from the closeness of its captain's table camaraderie to the wilds of its one perfect storm.
How anyone actually lived this kind of life is a marvel. After the grandeur of Master and Commander, why is less of a mystery.