Peter Weir is one of the most talented, relatively unknown filmmakers of our time. He has helmed some top tier flicks: Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show, Witness, yet he remains one of those guys whose movies you recognize but whose name you don't. In his long career Weir has shown a constant tendency to gravitate toward stories and characters that exist in places of extremity- a sort of auteur of the extreme if you please. Wether it's a scientist bent on an impossible invention in the tropical rain forest (The Mosquito Coast); a modern detective thrown into the foreign world of the Quakers (Witness); a group of escaped prisoners making a 3,000 mile trek from Sibera to India (the incredible- yet largely ignored The Way Back) or the high seas of Napoleonic times in the case of Master and Commander- Weir weaves character with epic spectacle and masterfully balances them both to create some lasting film images and characters. In a time of shaky cameras, shooting for coverage and popcorn sentimentality Weir is an almost aged man of film still relying on the means and methods more akin to David Lean than David Fincher, always placing the intrinsic worth of art above any box office considerations the studios might want him to have.
Master and Commander is my kind of film. First off, the vast majority of the movie takes place on the one ship. Self encapsulated movies get me excited as they are often vehicles for great character moments and thematic struggles. When you combine that with the fact that this is a period war movie the potential for greatness is certainly there because who doesn't love sweeping, character driven, period war epics?
The plot is pretty straightforward, with Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) and his ship, the H.M.S. Surprise, is tracking a private French vessel named the Acheron down and around the tip of South America. Although outmatched in size and gunnery Jack continues his pursuit beyond both his orders and, at times, the limits of his crew. Along the way he must deal with both the elements of weather, war and of crew morale.
Serving as a sort of confidante and trusted friend is Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), a naturalist and the ship's physician.Bettany is perfectly refined as the halfway out of place intellectual trapped in a world of crude matter and Russell Crowe swashbuckles with the best of them, delivering a nautical performance worthy of praise (Crowe, who learned the violin for this part, said it was the hardest thing he ever had to do for a role). Below that you don't really have a singular character becoming preeminent- with no romantic subplots whatsoever- but rather a strong ensemble sense of all the characters from the midshipmen on down.
Particuarly engaging is a subplot about midway through involving the crew's suspicion of a "Jonah" being on board and the way they go about tormenting a young officer they believe is responsible for the many turns of bad luck they have recently endured. In the end however the film falls back into the chase for the Acheron and finishes off with a stunningly fantastic and in your face battle sequence that rivals that of any other maritime war movie ever made!
Of the many accolades this film boasts (it garnered 10 Oscar nods and 2 wins after all) perhaps most impressive is Weir's austerisitc sense of pace and atmosphere. From the opening sequence- which is about 7 parts anticipation, 3 parts sheer pandemonium- to the many sweeping shots of the Surprise setting sail across the ocean right on to the rowdy dinners below deck with the captian and his lieutenants. Weir masterfully controls the tone, shape and flow of the film like few other directors are capable of. Patient and attentive to detail, he weaves a tale that seems both historically accurate but at the time stylistically romantic.
Now this balance is a difficult one and Master and Commander is not without it's bit of cheese as Aubrey's relationship with Stephen comes off a bit strange at times (indeed same sex relationships were probably more common than we'd believe out at sea for months at a time with no women) as they are often found below deck, cleverly summarizing the thematic elements of the film as well as pecking at each other like angry lovers. Then there's those extremely poignanntly delivered lines of exaltation (generally to the invisible 4th wall) such as, "that's seamanship, Mr. Pullings. By God, that's seamanship!" or, "this is the second time he's done this to me- there will not be a third." Chewing on the scenery? Maybe. But as far as scene chewers go you could do worse than Russel Crowe and at the end of the day Peter Weir sure makes some pretty tasty looking scenery.
Now if Master and Commander falls short at all in terms of story or dialogue- and that's only if you're being extremely picky- it makes up for it in spades with production design and execution. The authenticity of everything from the material used to make the costumes, the species of animals found on the Galapagos island to the design and build of the HMS Surprise itself really lends the film a sense of true-ness. The extensive research and the art and costume departments shines through in every frame. Weir had custom rope made for the entire production as rope was laid left handedly rather than right in Napoleanic days.
They even went so far as to fly cameras down to South America to get actual footage of a replica ship that was sailing at the time so that the storm footage layered with the studio shots (they used the same tank James Cameron had built for Titanic) is actually authentic! Not many filmmakers will go out of their way anymore to film actual reality when it's just cheaper and easier to do it on a computer. Weir, however, understands the weight that actual footage carries in a film of this magnitude and scope and does everything in his power to make the experience as real as possible for everyone from the cast and crew to the audience in the theater. The mere fact that it was 7 years between this film and his next, The Way Back, speaks perhaps to how uncompromising Weir can be as certainly after 10 oscar nods he could have easily had his pick at a number of scripts being offered him by the studios. Instead he chooses to be choosy and to only make a film when the material speaks to him (this is in fact true as I was at a talk-back with Peter Weir last year where he discussed this).
When Master and Commander: The Far Side Of The World originally came out in theaters, I hesitated seeing it because I thought the title sounded like a mouthful and the movie would indeed be garbage. A silly reason to not see a movie I know but I pride myself in having a sixth sense about these things. When I finally got around to seeing it a few years later in my home theater I kicked myself for having avoided such a stunningly exciting and engaging film. It may not be perfect but it's damn near perfectly executed and that's good enough for me. I believe Master and Commander will only become recognized more and more as years go by and I venture to guess it will remain on my top "ship movies" for a long time to come. Move over Titanic.
The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer of Master and Commander (presented in it's original 2.40:1 theatrical aspect ration) certainly left me wanting a little more. Not to say that the ball was dropped or anything but having owned the DVD for years (which was a great transfer for DVD even) I was hoping for a little more of an improvement as this really has become one of my favorite movies. Unfortunately the transfer is just decent. Blacks are sometimes solid, especially when it comes to darkness and shadows. Clothing textures are another case with some wavering here and there. Film grain is pretty much even throughout but that is certainly an artistic choice. Colors are not muted so much as washed out in my opinion and that's due to a few factors (noise reduction and intentionally foggy ambience being perhaps the overriding ones). There are a few shots here and there that surpassed the bulk of the transfer (they were usually wider shots) however upon leaning forward I was still finding edge blurring. Facial details, in close ups especially, are a bit underwhelming but all in all this transfer certainly gets a pass in my book. I'll refrain from any flying colors though.
The oscar winning sound of Master and Commander (it won for Sound Editing and was nominated for Sound Mixing) comes to us as a lossless DTS-HD 5.1 surround track and it sounds like they got this one right! The cannon-ball volleys had me ducking for cover as the surround sound plays brilliantly from front to rear and back again. Each splintered board of wood and explosion of gunpowder is wonderfully distinct in the wide soundscape and the many doppler effects of projectiles approaching are thrilling. Canon booms play great in the low end with enough rumbling to wake the neighbors. The ambient environment created for the film is subtly perfect with a creak and a moan always audible below deck and the swhoosh of water and wind always nearby above deck. The one issue I did find (and maybe this was an artistic choice) was the vast difference in volume between the tamer, dialogue driven scenes (that were also masterfully mixed) and the big, brass battle scenes. Surely it's understandable that it's extremely quiet on the open seas, with nothing but wind and water and that if your ship suddenly came under attack it would seem unbearably louder in comparison but I could have used a little more artistic finesse in bringing these two levels closer together so that I wasn't constantly reaching for my remote to lower and raise volume accordingly. A tiny complaint I know but worth noting nonetheless.
There are only a handful of extras on Master and Commander and the only one that I enjoyed even slightly was the historical trivia track that gave a few good insights into the books the film was based off of and the times themselves. As far as deleted scenes go there is a playful one where the men are all afraid of a wailing aquatic animal, supposing it to be a sea monster. Other than that you have your standard theatrical trailer and the normal bonus interactive crap that is mostly pointless.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is a much better movie than most people realize and one of the best nautical war movies perhaps ever made. Peter Weir continues (with 10 oscar nods) proving that he is one of the most talented filmmakers in Hollywood. After all, a dense historical drama with only 2 real action sequences to bookend it is quite a risk. The audio kicks serious ass but the video leaves a little to be desired. And it's certainly not made up for in the bonus features which are weak at best.