Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World: Peter Weir Turns Swashbuckling Cliches Upside Down

Interviewers always seem convinced that Russell Crowe was following in the footsteps of Mel Gibson when he set out from Down Under to conquer Hollywood. Actually, he told the London Telegraph, "I want[ed] to be the new Judy Davis." It is that brooding, difficult, inward quality that distinguishes him from Gibson's two simplistic modes (slaphappy clown and glowering tough) and defines the excellence of Crowe's fourth Oscar-hopeful vehicle, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (which opens Friday, Nov. 14, at Neptune and other theaters). Sure, Crowe can be a pain in the ass in real lifeTime's Richard Corliss has called him "by all accounts a severe rectal itch." But Crowe's characters are the opposite. Under infinite pressure (in The Insider, L.A. Confidential, and Gladiator), they are more apt to implode than explode. Crowe characteristically conveys violent emotions in the most restrained way of any major movie star. A still more illuminating comparison is with this year's other seafaring star, Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. Depp updated swashbuckler clich鳠by building his character around a literal impression of his piratical pal Keith Richardsthe kind of guy who acts out his impulses. Not Crowe's Capt. Jack Aubrey, great helmsman of the ship Surprise in Britain's early 19th-century war against Napoleon: He keeps his powder dry. Instead of updating the character, Crowe plunged into the past so masterfully recaptured by the Aubrey novels of Patrick O'Brian. Crowe studied books about Adm. Nelson, and he's utterly convincing as a man who models himself after his nation's naval hero. This involves not the posturing heroism we associate with the swashbuckler picture, but the measured moves of a man who calculates the effect of his every word and gesture on his impressionable crew. When the Surprise gets surprised by the superior firepower of a faster, bigger, practically invulnerable French ship and Jack has to sail into a protective fog bank, he never lets the crew see his fearyou have to be the movie audience to see it, gazing deep into the glowing coals of his eyes. The crew members know and love him as "Lucky Jack," and much of that luck derives from their belief in his luck. When he spots a crewman insulting the faltering, incompetent officer Hollom, Aubrey flogs him promptly and tries to bolster Hollom. Staying alive at sea requires maintaining the social order"This ship is England," he says. O'Brian's novels are driven by their Jane Austen-like attention to society's ways and the minutiae of life, and Peter Weir's film version preserves that strength, partly by tapping the inner strength of his star. Though dozens are deftly sketched, only a few characters aboard are fully articulated, chiefly Aubrey's best friend/ship's doctor/naturalist, Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany, the imaginary best friend in A Beautiful Mind); and, to a lesser extent, the boy sailor Lord Blakeney (the luminous Max Pirkis), who must choose his role model in life: the scientist who had to amputate Blakeney's injured arm or the warrior captain he salutes with his remaining arm. O'Brian readers will piss and moan that Maturin is not the full partner in the film that he is in the books, whose central concern is male friendship. To them I say: Pipe down or we'll keelhaul your mutinous keisters right out of the theater and back to the library, where you belong. A movie requires a star and a second banana, not a binary star, and Bettany's performance harmonizes beautifully with Crowe's dominant melodyliterally, in the scenes where they play violin/cello duets in the captain's cabin. Bettany's Maturin is lesser and simpler than O'Brian's, but functional on film. Maturin serves as Aubrey's loyal opposition, questioning his decision to chase the superior French warship around South America and the pride involved in trying to take it back to England for a prize. His kindly spirit brings out the warmth that courses like the Gulf Stream through the waters of Aubrey's nature. In keeping with his stars' disciplined suppression of movie-star clich鳬 Weir's direction steers clear of action-picture convention. The big, viewer-engulfing storm scene was shot on the same giant, watery Baja California set as Titanic, but while Titanic was a compendium of clich鳬 a movie about movie stars, Commander succeeds in evoking real life, free of narrative stratagems and manipulated emotions. Weir gives us our sea legs, makes us feel we know our staysails from our flying jibs. He manages to convey both the confusion of battleat times, literally the fog of warand the structure of it, in the social relations of the crew and the physical tasks they nimbly do: scampering like spiders along ropy webs, feeding the belching cannons, ducking shrapnel splinters that can shred men into confetti, cunningly setting out a decoy ship to draw fire away from the mother ship. Weir is indifferent to formula filmmaking. He refused to change the uncommercial story line of 1990's Green Card despite one studio suit's accurate plea: "If you give it a happy ending, you can buy a new pool!" He doesn't want a new pool; he wants his movies to feel new. Because Commander isn't shaped for movie-star arcs and narrative crescendos, it won't outgross Titanic. But it's a refreshing new approach that could refill the sails of the naval-adventure genre. And if we could time travel to 1805, it would be the most effective military recruitment film ever made. tappelo@seattleweekly.com

 
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