on 1 September 2006
Like all O'Brian fans I was eager for this film to appear at the cinema, but was half expecting to be disappointed, as so easily happens when books are adapted for the screen. But I need not have worried. Every care has been taken to keep to the spirit of the books, although not the letter, and the attention to detail is astonishing.
The story itself is very simple. Jack Aubrey's ship Surprise is attacked by a much more powerful ship - the French privateer Acheron - in fog off the coast of Brazil. The ship's company manages to rescue the ship by towing her deeper into the fog, and the rest of the film involves the Surprise chasing the Acheron round the Horn to get her revenge. So, very much a "blokish" film, with no romantic interest (in fact the only time women appear is when some Brazilian boats pull out to trade with the ship, and even then they don't speak). This won't be to everybody's taste, and you will probably get the most out of it if you love the sea and sailing ships.
Put so baldly, the film doesn't seem to have much to recommend it, but its success resides in four things. Firstly the social relations on board ship, especially the friendship between Captain Aubrey and the ship's surgeon Stephen Maturin, which is as central here as it is in the books. Secondly, fine acting by the whole cast. Thirdly the astounding attention to detail. And fourthly the delight in discovering natural wonders.
And for O'Brian devotees, how does it stack up? Well, the story is very much a pick and mix of scenes and events from books throughout the series. The novel The Far Side of the World involves a chase with a US Navy ship. In the film it has been quietly substituted by a French one, presumably because nobody in the US would want to watch a film about one of their ships being knocked about by a British one. In fact, the only real connection between book and film as far as the story goes is that it involves a chase around the Horn and up to the Galapagos.
Tom Pullings is pretty faithful to the novels, Mr Allen the sailing master is excellent, and other characters are faithfully reproduced, although one or two come to rather unexpected ends. Preserved Killick and Joe Plaice could have stepped straight out of the pages, they are so real. The only two exceptions are Bonden and Jack Aubrey. Bonden looks like a 15 year old boy, rather than the hulking tattooed pig-tailed man of war's man I was expecting. Not that he's in any way bad, but just wrong for the part. And Russell Crowe as Jack Aubrey was probably the best choice for a very difficult character to portray. In the leadership role he is very good indeed. In fact I can think of nobody who could play the part better. But when not fighting an enemy or a storm, Aubrey is a rather clumsy, ham-fisted, unintentionally funny character with his mixed aphorisms, etc., and here Crowe is not so good. He can't really do humour, and his English accent doesn't sound very different from his Australian/NZ one. But I can think of no actor in the world who could have combined two such very differing sides of Jack's personality.
The "great value" in the review title refers to the extras. They are quite simply the best I have ever seen in a DVD, and when you see the lengths to which Peter Weir went in order to remain faithful to the books and the times you will be amazed. For anybody who loves sailing, The Hundred Days "making of" film is worth five stars on its own.
It merits every one of its five stars, but you are more likely to enjoy it if you have a passion for the sea and ships.
on 26 February 2004
Yes, even that strange, disparate group of people who are incapable of talking about anything when they meet other than weevils, soused pig's face and tincture of laudanum, even they love this film. I should know, I'm one of them and most of the people I know are too.
Having seen a couple of excerpts of Crowe as Aubrey, I was absolutely dreading this movie but was totally enthralled from the outset. In fact, it wasn't until near the end of the movie when Aubrey & Maturin were walking on deck next to each other that I noticed that Paul Bettany is almost a foot taller than Russell Crowe (stilts for Crowe were in order for that shot).
It's not a word-for-word rendering of the novel onto film by any stretch of the imagination (nor should it have been) but it absolutely captures the spirit of the books and conveys life aboard the Surprise brilliantly. The detail is breath-taking from the ship itself to the behaviour of the crew and on to the wonderful storm and battle action scenes.
To give you an idea of just how pedantic I was being, I was absolutley delighted to see Maturin - like the good Catholic that he is - stopping short of the line "For thine is the kingdom..." during the Lord's Prayer near the end of the film (yes, I know it's sad to actually expend mental energy on such minutiae but, clearly, someone else did too).
My only disappointment was that no allusions were made to Maturin's secret life as an intelligence agent but I guess there's a limit to how much character exposition one can expect in, what I hope, is the first in a series of films. However, other aspects of his character - as Aubrey's best friend, as a great physician and as a fanatical naturalist - are depicted to great effect and humour.
From the outset, I forgot that it was Russell Crowe (so all credit to him) and thoroughly enjoyed his depiction of Aubrey and, obviously, David Threlfall was born to play Preserved Killick (more of him in the next film, I hope). The casting was, in fact, faultless except for one thing: the actor playing Barrett Bonden - a role for a huge, burly, pigtailed pugilist - was given to a rather small hobbit.
Far Side of the World is destined to become a cinema classic as well as a much-cherished DVD in my collection.
This exciting swashbuckling epic takes place aboard the British frigate, HMS Surprise. Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) has orders to destroy, or take as prize, the French warship Acheron, off the coast of Brazil. Most of the film concerns the day to day life aboard ship and we get to know the men very well. The Captain is a warm, intelligent man who enjoys puns and playing the violin as much as he loves the sea. There is the ship's doctor (Paul Bettany) who is the Captain's friend and confidant and Midshipman Blakeney (Max Pirkis), one of many young boys who are learning about the sea and will one day be captains of their own ships. The crew engage the Acheron in battle, and the Captain asks the men to defeat the enemy for England, for home, and for the prize.
This is Russell Crowe's best role to date, and he rates a 10 on the Macho-Meter. He is gallant, brave, handsome, and kind in a very appealing performance. The story is told at a leisurely pace, allowing us to feel the rolling of the ship, the camaraderie of the men, the adventure of it all. The battle scenes are exciting, but not gory. I thoroughly enjoyed this film and recommend it to those who want heroic, sensitive characters that you care about, a literate script, and masterful direction.
Even for Weir, this film is something special. Adapted from Patrick O'Brien's cult series (but with the villains changed from the Americans to the French)it offers a near-perfect combination of thrilling action with deep feeling for the inter-dependence of the men on board the HMS Surprise. Every character, no matter how small, plays his part. This is a world wholly without women, beautiful, maddening, moving - a masterpiece of film.
The oceans are battlefields in which England fights for supremacy. A ship is half-glimpsed in the mist, but the timid young officer on watch doubts his own judgement, and crucial seconds are lost until Captain "Lucky Jack" Aubrey takes command. Russell Crowe has recently fallen out of favour due to bad behaviour in real life, but here he shows what a great acotr he is. One can think of no other who could carry such authority, and even if he is shown doing absurd things like standing heroically on the prow of his ship, his conviction is absolute. Cannon-balls fly, carnage is terrible, and in one oif the film's most distressing scenes, a small cadet's arm has to be severed by Dr. Maturin, Paul Bettany also giving a performance of exquisite humour and brilliance. These three- Captain, cadet and doctor - form a relationship of mutual trust and support that gets tested to its limits as Aubrey pursues the French ship round the storms of Tierra del Fuego, past ice-floes and under burning suns, to the Galapagos Islands. Maturin, a man of science, is fascinated in this pre-Darwinian age by the extraordinary animals he finds ther, but frustrated in his wish to study them by Aubrey's savage desire to hunt down his enemy. Only when Maturin is wounded does he get his wish- and discover a vital secret.
Both stunningly beautiful and highly intelligent the film asks questions about the nature of duty, friendship, violence and civilisation. The Captain and the Doctor play chamber music together (some of the funniest scenes show the crew's disamyed reaction to Bach, and the last scene of the pair playing Boccherini's famous fandango leaves one with an irreissitble feeling of joy)yet both fight like men possessed when their beloved ship is attacked. The battle-scenes are superb. You see the horror of violence, yet the passion for it too.
What is particularly enjoyable is the additional DVD about how the film was made - the building of the ship, the creation of the spirit amojg the "crew". Even if you tend to take actors with a big pinch of salt, it's impossible not to be impressed by the hard work and real craftsmanship. A crying shame it didn't get an Oscar, because it's far better than Lord of the Rings- and, curiously, about very similar subjects.
on 18 December 2004
The start of this film is highly unusual, there is no theme music and no real introduction to the characters, we get to know them gradually throughout the film. At first with shots of sailing ships in an empty sea and mundane activity on board the ship, you wonder if it is going to be really slow getting started. After five minutes or so you realise that this is a sort of calm before the storm. There is a giant sea battle with ships being blasted by cannon and men being hideously injured. I have to point out, though, that this is extremely well done, and the hideous injuries are not seen in their full gory detail. Although there is a lot of realistic battles and fighting at different points in the film, there is no gratuitous scenes of people being blown to pieces, blood and guts flying everywhere, although we are under no illusions that that is what is happening. As one of the main characters is the ship's surgeon we see him performing operations (one on himself - I don't know how possible that is?) and instead of showing the blood and gore we see the un-anaesthetised patients' pain in their faces. Which is what makes the film so enjoyable - well obviously not the pain, but the way that it requires actors to act rather than just run around in front of blue screens waving big guns. There are special effects to make the sea battles appear more realistic, but they are kept to a minimum and it is the acting that shines through.
I usually don't expect to enjoy films that I've read the book of, and to be fair it is Master and Commander that I've read, not The Far side of the World which is the one that the film is most heavily based on. Nevertheless I was extremely pleasantly surprised to find that I really was able to enjoy this film. The characters are well drawn and as I'm not a huge Russell Crowe fan I was surprised just how good he was as Jack Aubrey, and Paul Bettany is equally excellent as Stephen Maturin. The supporting cast include many fine British actors. It may be a "war film" in some senses, but it goes much further, it is realistic rather than swashbuckling and intelligent rather than being full of action for action's sake.
The realism of life on a naval vessel 200 years ago combined with the excellence of the acting is what makes me give this film 5 stars.
on 1 March 2012
I'm not a fan of Russell Crowe. However, I've got to give him his due, he's first-class in this movie, as Captain Jack Aubrey, and that is a surprise.
The movie gave my surround sound system the best work-out it's had so far. Gunnery and sword battles are awesome, and I felt like ducking for cover.
The movie is a good action story, plenty of sea battles, and also time for reflection, natural history, jokes (the classic about the lesser of two weevils, in particular) and fellowship, some good, some less so.
The supporting cast work well both among themselves and with Russell Crowe. I could well imagine that HMS Surprise would be a good ship to sail in.
The Blu-ray transfer is excellent, as I would expect.
on 12 February 2004
Peter Weir is one of the few directors who has, over the years, courted a mass audience whilst retaining artistic integrity. I first encountered his work whilst growing up in his own native Australia. "Picnic at Hanging Rock", while it was always rather frustrating for those who admire the scientific rationalism of a proper detective like Sherlock Holmes, nevertheless provided a showcase for the young director's eye for the beauty of the Australian bush. The timeless "Gallipoli", whilst its plot subscribed to a myth which has long since been disproven by historians, still remains one of the most poignant anti-war films ever made. After Weir's move to America, I still followed him, and was entranced by "Witness", his portrayal of a tough Philadelphia cop exiled by grim necessity in an Amish community, which combines all of the usual features of an action film with the full gamut of unanswered questions about the power of non-violence.
Weir's latest movie has all the hallmarks of similar greatness. It has an excellent pedigree, having been inspired by the novels of Patrick O'Brian, a novelist with a genuine knowledge of Napoleonic history, and of natural history too. O'Brian was capable not only of writing superb novels; he also wrote an erudite and entertaining biography of Sir Joseph Banks, one of the most intelligent of the early European-Australian pioneers. When I first watched this movie, I expected to see something out of the ordinary.
I was not to be disappointed. From the opening scene, in which the seamen slump listlessly inside their hammocks, the inventive camera angles captured life aboard a ship in the Napoleonic wars with an unerring eye for detail, from the grisly surgical scenes to the disastrous attempts to shoot an albatross. Much of it was gruesome in the extreme, and yet this realism was matched by a great beauty. Never has a sailing ship's rigging been captured by such an aesthetic eye, and in all weathers too, nor with such evocative music as a backdrop. It is possible for the viewer to spend the duration of this film feeling quite convinced that Captain Aubrey and the surgeon Maturin really are just at hand, although Maturin, perhaps, had rather more panache than he possessed in O'Brian's novels.
Do not be put off by the reviews in newspapers such as the Guardian and the Independent, written as they are by would-be film-makers who presumably didn't make the grade, and feel miffed as a result. It is not true that the only conflict in the film is over whether Maturin will get to go birdwatching on the Galapagos Islands. It is far from mere birdwatching, after all; these are the same islands that gave birth to Darwin's "Origin of Species", and Maturin is about to encounter marine iguanas and flightless cormorants. And besides, there is always the small matter of a rather formidable French ship which Aubrey is determined to blow out of the water. I hate war films, but this one so engaged me that my heart leapt when the enemy ship's mainmast fell. For me, at least, this film succeeded where C.S. Forester's epics failed.
Peter Weir has allowed only one compromise in his courtship of that mass market. Captain Aubrey's original target was an American ship, not a French one. It seems that, ever since Vietnam, at least, American audiences have become too used to being winners for them to accept an account, even a ficticious one, in which their would-be forbears end up blown to smithereens.
on 19 September 2007
Who else with natural blond hair could have played Aubrey? Who else would have put on weight to play him (apart from de Niro in his pomp) bearing in mind Aubrey was always wrestling with his embonpoint? Who else would have stood in the crow's nest (think Nelson's column for height but waving around with the sea swell) just for a single shot? Who else could have that truculent, loveable, naive style about him? And as for his accent, the court's Hanoverian accent had not begun filtering down to give us those hard German consonants and roooouuund vowels we think of as the 'correct' upper-class English accent; his native Oz accent would probably be closer to the real thing! (Alarming...) It's a film I find myself returning to time and time again for its sense of a ship at sea, the community, the authenticity. Bettany is superb as ever though as Maturin is supposed to look like O'Brian, small, rather ugly, dark, spylike, quite miscast but who cares? Superb. The final scene, Maturin's Galapagos trip interrupted by the requirements of the service, Crowe's playful 'These birds are flightless?' and them playing that delightful music with the last shot of the Acheron in the distance is as moving to me as the last balloon shot at the end of 'Oh what a lovely war'... Please providence send some kind billionaire (there are enough of them these days) to finance a sequel from his/her ill-gotten sub-prime gains before Weir and Crowe sail out of our lives and into film history.Thank heavens for Weir, I say.
I gave this film a look on dvd having seen it at the cinema and felt vaguely disappointed as it didn't grip the throat like 'Gladiator.'
Glad I did. This is an excellent film, totally convincing in its period detail and exhilirating in its execution. The early shots, when french cannonballs rake through the HMS Surprise, are superb, wonderful.
Russell Crowe looks chunkier than he did in 'Gladiator', but he is still the Ultimate Warrior. As 'lucky Jack' Aubrey, he owns the screen. In particular, his speech to the men as they prepare to board the French ship that has been dogging them for weeks is perfectly delivered. 'Do you want guillotines in Whitehall?' he asks the men and gets a resounding 'no' In that brief exchange, you get a real sense of what motivated Englishmen to fight the Napoleonic wars. Very impressive.
Crowe has a problem in that he is matched with Paul Bettaney, the English actor who is practically Kevin Bacon-like in his ability to act anyone off the screen. Bettaney is brilliant. As the ship's doctor, he brings a humanity to the role which is like having a wet twenty-first century liberal in every scene - acting as our conscience - though still manages to be heroic and just ..... right.
The acting honours aside, where Master and Commander really scores is in the direction and cinematogrophy. Director Peter Weir is a master himself. He did Witness and Picnic at Hanging Rock and makes each scene tell, from the drunken ribaldry of the state room to the eerie silences of the fog.
Bettaney , Crowe et al are signed up for sequels, but that clause will never be activated as Master and Commander did not do the business at the box office. God alone knows why. Get this out, have a shot of grog and enjoy the best - absolutely the best - sea warfare film.
Before I saw Master and Commander I was deeply sceptical. For starters, changing the baddies from being American (in the books) to French was a typical Hollywood ploy, so I had every reason to suspect that the plot would be paper thin, ignoring all the subtle complexities of O'Brian's text.
Then there was Russell Crowe, a man whose hellraising ego apparently aspires to matching the likes of Fairbanks, Flynn, Burton, Harris and Marvin. Could he pull off a role requiring both authority and vulnerability?
As it turns out, I had no need to worry. Crowe performs the role of Aubrey with aplomb, matched by a perfect foil in the form of Paul Bettany's cello-playing sawbones, Stephen Maturin, a man of unusual taste and refinement for a floating morgue.
And while some liberties have inevitably been taken with O'Brian's work (not least the cumbersome title), it's hard to imagine the flavour and atmosphere of life aboard a 19th Century warship being recreated any more effectively than Peter Weir and his team have achieved.
In fact, it's worth getting the 2-disc version to see the making of documentaries, including some fascinating special effects. Using a combination of a real ship, miniatures and computer-generated effects, MACTFSOTW creates a detailed and resonant world of flying ropes, torn canvas, splintered wood, and deadly seas.
More than that, Weir deserves credit for some fine pacing with regular climaxes - not easy when you're trying to distil the contents of multiple books into one film. And not least for the ragged human emotions found in a weary group of sailors chasing a superior French vessel in intolerable conditions towards what they believe will be certain death. Yet, somehow, led by ace strategist Aubrey, they summon up the reserves and the morale to go beyond to victory.
Not a great film, but a darn good one, capturing the spirit of derring do once noted in British adventure films. For this, it deserves great credit.