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Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World: Collector's Edition

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Starring Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany

Written by Peter Weir and John Collee
Directed by Peter Weir

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Review by Clarence Beaks                    

Patrick O'Brian, author of the seafaring exploits of British Naval officer Jack Aubrey and his physician/naturalist friend Stephen Maturin, was known as a writer's writer, boasting an impressively literary fan-base ranging from Iris Murdoch to David Mamet. For those unfamiliar with his work, such pedigreed ardor might seem unusual, but O'Brian was no common genre hack. As anyone who has sampled his 20-volume series of books will attest, the appeal of his work lies not in the bustling, page-turning suspense of most serial yarns, but in the sparkling camaraderie of its characters and the dense, vividly described detail of its mostly ocean-bound milieu. In fact, his understanding of this world was so innate, many had him figured for a time traveler from the 19th century.

Since their popular revival in 1990, the Aubrey-Maturin books have been hotly pursued by Hollywood. But the problem, outside of deciding which book to film, was always a question of finding the right director for the sure-to-be-costly gig. When the idiosyncratic, but highly respected Peter Weir was finally attached to the project, it sounded like a perfect match: At last, the writer's writer had found a director's director.

The marriage could hardly have been more harmonious. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), a mouthful of a title that's actually a combination of the first and tenth books in the series respectively, is a brilliant transformation of the aesthetic exactness of O'Brian's prose into a visual and aural feast of captivating verisimilitude. It's a thrilling realization of cinema's immersive potential that energizes its slender narrative with the perpetual feeling that one is bearing witness to as close a representation of life as it was on the high seas without the use of that time machine that bore O'Brian a century forward. And, thanks to the massive budget of the thing (so big, it required three studios to share the cost, resulting in an amusing bit of pre-credit logo jockeying), it's also most probably the final big screen foray for these beloved characters. If so, fans should simply be content to count their blessings for the day when Peter met Patrick.

*          *          *

While bearing the name of two novels, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is largely the inspiration of its lengthy subtitle, though even that has been heavily reconfigured by its adaptors, Weir and John Collee. The most drastic alteration is the changing of the enemy from an American vessel pestering British whaling ships during the War of 1812 to a French frigate, the Acheron, that has entered South American waters in a hazily explained gambit to expand the scope of the Napoleonic Wars. The valorous Jack Aubrey, captain of the H.M.S. Surprise, has been ordered to pursue the Acheron, but, in an unexpected turn of events due to his quarry's speed and ingenuity, the hunter suddenly becomes the hunted, forcing the wily Aubrey to utilize every trick he knows to avoid being sunk.

One of the most fascinating and, in terms of classic Hollywood storytelling, counterintuitive, elements of the film is the manner in which Weir, save for a terse opening title card and a brief montage of mood-establishing shots, completely dispenses with exposition. The opening sequence, which finds the Surprise being shelled by a fog-enshrouded Acheron, would normally serve as the traditional "Call to Adventure," which normally arrives anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes into the movie. But Weir, perhaps sensing (rightly or wrongly) that mainstream audiences would be bored by O'Brian's affection for British Naval minutiae, chooses instead to hit the ground not only running, but at a full sprint. Right away, he's preparing the viewer for his film's peculiarly digressive rhythms, which seek to make the characters endearing through their familiar interactions, rather than a conventional run-through of their shared histories.

Even more daring is Weir's refusal to soften up the characters' rapidly delivered, jargon-heavy dialogue, which, for all its indecipherability, particularly in the battle sequences, might as well have been in Aramaic. But such unwavering dedication to period veracity is what helps make the picture so uniquely enjoyable; it gives one that feeling of having been dropped into a wholly alien environment. Without this detail, the illusion wouldn't be nearly as complete.

Following the opening ambush, Aubrey, a proud and brilliant man who's unused to losing the upper hand, is forced into a periodic retreat as he devises a strategy to trip up his clever new foe. While he schemes, Weir begins setting up several subplots involving, among others, a disliked midshipman who is viewed by the superstitious crew as cursed, Maturin's desire to explore the Galapagos Islands, and a courageous child's coming-of-age as a warrior. Though somewhat tangential and leisurely developed, they're nonetheless engrossing vignettes that bring the hardships and internecine politics of a naval ship more clearly into focus. Most crucially, these diversions not only flesh out the crew's many colorful characters, but also distract the viewer from realizing just how threadbare the primary narrative really is.

Still, once Aubrey seizes on his grand (if slightly improbable) plan to hoodwink the Acheron by disguising the Surprise as a whaling vessel, the film springs back to life, offering up a thunderously satisfying climactic battle. Never much of an action director in the past, Weir proves quite deft in his staging of the obligatory swashbuckling finale. Swords are crossed and hulls punctured by cannon shrapnel with a vividness that, like everything else in the film, feels new to the genre. And while Weir is certainly responsible for pulling this off, a large portion of the credit for this achievement must go to sound editor Richard King, who won a richly deserved Oscar for his aural wizardry here.

Of course, the entire film would be a handsomely mounted wash without a charismatic pair of actors filling out the roles of Aubrey and Maturin, but Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany, sharing the screen for a second time after their acclaimed work in A Beautiful Mind, are well cast their respective roles. Some initially found Crowe an ill fit for Aubrey, worrying that he wouldn't be able to convey the man's buffoonish nature that masks his keen facility for warfare. This is partially solved by Weir and Collee giving the character a bit more polish than he possesses in O'Brian's books. Despite these mild tweaks, Crowe, doughier than usual, still looks and sounds enough like Aubrey that it'll be impossible to read the books without him in mind. On the other hand, Bettany is absolutely perfect as the bookish Maturin, whose scholarly refinement and persistent chiding are the counterpoints that humanize the outsized Aubrey. Best of all, the two are natural in their rapport, establishing the depth and solidity of the friendship that, above all else, makes O'Brian's series so special.

It's impossible to imagine these books being brought to life by anyone else but Weir, whose ongoing fascination with outsiders entering strange cultures is an ideal fit for the project. Unlike his previous films, however, the characters are all completely at home in their world; it's the audience who's the outsider. When one understands this, that opening, dimly lit tour of the ship, scored to little more than the ambient sound of a working ship at sea, makes perfect sense. It's the moment of enchantment through which Weir works his customary magic, and it lingers undisturbed for a wonderful couple of hours until the closing credits finally breaks the spell. It's as good, as stirring, and as pleasurable as time spent under a reading light with the late Patrick O'Brian.

*          *          *

Fox presents Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World: Collector's Edition in a superb anamorphic transfer (2.40:1) with flawless Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 audio. For a film so reliant on the vibrancy of its sound, Fox has come through with excellent, standard-setting work here.

Extras on this two-disc "Collector's Edition" are plentiful and mostly top-notch. First, there's the fairly substantial "making-of" documentary, "The Hundred Days" (68 min.), which follows the project from pre-production to the final touches of scoring the film in post. It's an expectedly informative feature that details the construction of the mock Surprise on Fox's De La Playa lot in Mexico, as well as the purchase of a recreated vessel for the open-sea shooting, while depicting the care and dedication that went into giving the film its crucially evocative sense of time and place. What it fails to do, however, is give the viewer a sense of struggle. Surely, there must have been obstacles that fell in the way of bringing this ambitious feature to the screen. Without acknowledging these difficulties, the production history comes off as rather a bore.

Better, then, are the featurettes focusing on the more specific aspects of the production; namely, the docs examining the visual effects (20 min.) and the sound design (18 min.) The former is mostly guided by WETA's enthusiastic f/x supervisor, Richard Taylor, well known to most DVD enthusiasts from The Lord of the Rings extended editions. Here, Taylor shows off their carefully constructed "bigature" — a too-large-to-be-called-"miniature" model of the boat — used for the more violent storm sequences. What's nice about WETA's work on this film is the way their realistic CG was used to enhance existing environments, rather than create them from the ground up. Good as this segment is, though, the sound featurette, led by Richard King, is by far the most fascinating offering on the disc. From firing off real cannons in an empty field in Michigan to recording flapping sails out in the desert, this doc is a fitting depiction of why many consider King to be the best working in his field today. This featurette is also complemented by an "Interactive Cannon Demonstration," which allows one to single out the bits and pieces of recorded sound that are edited together to suggest the weapon's ferocity. Another featurette, "In the Wake of O'Brian" (20 min.), sheds some insight into Weir's creative process, though comes up woefully short in discussing the work of the author.

The six deleted scenes (24 min.) included here are mostly bits and pieces of mood jettisoned by Weir to tighten up the film. "Shipboard Life" is probably the most interesting of these, as it shows how the director intended to set up Maturin getting shot by the rifle-happy Howard. "Superstition" is an amusing, if disposable, vignette that has the crew mistaking a whale for a sea monster, while "Galapagos" offers some welcome additional spectacle from Maturin's brief travels through naturalist splendor.

For those curious about the nuts-and-bolts of filmmaking, there are "Interactive Multi-Angle Battle Scene Studies" that show how multiple camera sequences are cut together using footage from the opening and closing battles. There are also galleries showing off some of the conceptual art, as well as the naval paintings that inspired the film, and technical blueprints. Finally there are three theatrical trailers for this film, and, on Disc One, a few teasers for upcoming Fox projects.

— Clarence Beaks

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