It's 1805. The English and French are fighting, again. Not content to limit the battle to the literal ground at hand, the countries are skirmishing wherever the opportunity arises. It is thus that we find the British naval frigate HMS Surprise -- halfway around the world off the coast of Brazil -- suddenly under attack by the Acheron, a privateer flying the French flag. The Surprise, under the command of Capt. "Lucky" Jack Aubrey, fortuitously hides in a looming fog bank. Lucky indeed, but only temporarily: The Surprise and the Acheron will chase each other across two oceans, a decisive battle is surely their destiny.
Last summer's surprise hit Pirates of the Caribbean may have made the rough waters of Big Box Office safe for 19th-century naval adventures featuring men in puffy shirts. Australian director Peter Weir (The Truman Show) can hope so as he sets sail with this two-and-a-half hour maritime yarn adapted by Weir and John Collee from Patrick O'Brian's popular novels relating the exploits of Capt. Aubrey. The film is a combination of two O'Brian novels -- the first book, Master and Commander, and The Far Side of the World, the 10th in a series of 20. (Whether this means there will be nine sequels or 18, I don't know.)
Weir's greatest weapon is undoubtedly Russell Crowe, who strides authoritatively into the boots of Capt. Aubrey. (And judging by Crowe's new girth, those boots appear to have rested at a few buffets.) To today's cynical audiences reared on Muscle Beach-reject, kill-first-quip-later action heroes, Aubrey is an anachronistic sort of hero. Imbued with a sense of duty, he is first and foremost an agent of the Crown, a gentleman warrior with a natural exuberance borne of certainty that his way is the right way, if not divinely ordained.
Aubrey's gentle foil is the ship's surgeon, Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany, who was Crowe's imaginary friend in A Beautiful Mind). His duty is to preserve life, even as his ship sanctions killing; he's the softer side of the English gentleman, and he pursues the burgeoning upper-class hobby of naturalism. The rest of the cast -- with the exception of the one-armed teenage Lord Blakeney (Max Pirkis) -- is mostly lost to the murk of battle and the overbooking of the ship: Crew members come and go on screen, but you'll be lucky to catch their names or sort out their duties.
And hence one of Master and Commander's flaws: Bookended between two battles is nearly two hours of shipboard life which vacillate between nothing happening and a predictable series of nautical set pieces -- man overboard, nasty storm, the perpetuation of the rigid English class system, a surgery, the singing of sea shanties and a trading visit with natives -- all featuring characters you know little about. The Aubrey/Maturin friendship is the film's only explored relationship, yet it hardly consists of anything deeper than bickering over an obvious moral conundrum about whether men or duty matter more, and shared evening hours playing stringed instruments in the captain's quarters.
O'Brian's novels are famous for their prodigious detail, and if there isn't time to provide personalities for all the players in a movie, at least the film's attention to set design and costuming is impressive. And Weir does manage a good sense of you-are-there: The ship creaks and heaves, the wind howls -- you can almost smell the salt (luckily the romantic notion of the sea means we rarely contemplate getting a whiff of the men).
It's all well executed on a grand scale, but what the film lacks is tension and -- ironically, for a film jerry-rigged from two novels -- a good story. The Acheron will reappear to fight the Surprise, but a barely glimpsed ship of faceless men is hardly a worthy villain. A man as nobly larger-than-life as Aubrey needs a narrative counterweight -- some insurgency amongst his men, or an adversary who is his match in warfare but motivated by ill will. The English ship has orders to intercept the French ship and vice versa; if you'll excuse the inclusion of an unrelated third country, that's simply a Mexican standoff. What the film offers as time-killer between battles is a bizarre put-in at the Galapagos Islands, where preternaturally brilliant Dr. Maturin discovers a slew of exotic creatures a full three decades before Charles Darwin. Who knew?
So Master and Commander is a few bells short of being a cracking good story, but it still floats ably as big-screen entertainment. It's good to recall that the ocean is a grand place for adventure -- who isn't bored with outer space and renegade cops? If you've ever yearned for an armchair journey across the seas aboard one of Admiral Nelson's famed armada, vicariously dodging cannon fire and scrambling up hundreds of feet of rigging, your ship has come in.