Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (12A)

Peter Weir (135 mins), Starring Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany
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The Independent Culture

Peter Weir's seafaring swashbuckler is fitted with a title as stiff and leaden as a ship's anchor, but nothing else in its 135 minutes feels remotely draggy. Carved from the knotty timber of Patrick O'Brian's saga of Napoleonic derring-do, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is a robustly gripping tale of adventure on the high seas, expertly directed by Weir and beautifully acted by his cast. Who knew what fun could be had with mizzens and bosuns and cannons?

The film, while built on an epic scale, is rather more intimate and contemplative than the genre usually allows. Adapting from the first and 10th of O'Brian's novels, Weir and his co-writer John Collee provide a due measure of naval warfare, both in cannonfire and in savage close-quarter combat, but one feels their inquisitiveness really drawn to the detail of life aboard a ship, and the crew that man it. That ship is the HMS Surprise, first seen patrolling the coast of Brazil in April 1805; as a dawn fog rolls in, the Surprise is caught unawares by a French warship, takes an almighty battering along its flanks and beats a hurried retreat to safety.

Most other ships so comprehensively mangled would head for the nearest port to regroup, but the Surprise is captained by "Lucky" Jack Aubrey, a Navy man right down to his buttons. Cussed to a fault and smarting from this close shave, he orders that the ship be refitted at sea in preparation for a major ding-dong with their French assailant, the Acheron, despite its superior strength and firepower (44 cannon against the Surprise's 28).

And just to show he means business, Jack is played by Russell Crowe, blond hair scraped back over a brow as implacable as Martin Johnson's. If Jack's bulldog patriotism and fierce championing of British interests stuck in the craw of the antipodean Crowe, he never shows it. He commands the movie as vigorously as Jack does his boat, issuing orders in a laconic baritone faintly reminiscent of Richard Burton and sweeping the horizon with that hawkishly narrow gaze; while never a tyrant, he displays a streak of old-school ruthlessness when he orders a seaman be flogged for insubordination.

A counterweight to this benign bruiser is his dear friend, Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), the ship's doctor and a man of the Enlightenment where Jack is hidebound, like the rest of his crew, by superstition. Bettany, peering through spectacles, is a spindly and compelling presence here; he also played Crowe's friend in the sappy A Beautiful Mind, and their ease together is felt both in their playful violin-cello duets and later in their fiery disagreement as to the wisdom of hunting down the Acheron.

It is a subtlety in the writing that the two men, while fundamentally different in their worldview, share significant aspects of the other's character. Stephen, a proto-Darwinian naturalist, is in his element collecting flora and fauna during their stopover in the Galapagos islands, yet later shows himself to be as courageous as Jack, first when he stitches his own bullet-wound in a makeshift operating theatre, later when he flashes a cutlass through the enemy. And tough nut Jack is complicated by an unusual degree of imaginative sym-pathy; when he visits 12-year-old Midshipman Blakeney (Max Pirkis), just recovering from the amputation of his right arm, he presents the pale-faced boy with a book of Nelson's life, the one-armed hero nonpareil.

Peter Weir's best work has focused upon sealed-off societies: the girls' school in Picnic at Hanging Rock, the Amish enclave of Witness, and, most spookily of all, the gleaming fakery of The Truman Show. But none has carried quite the urgent imperative of HMS Surprise, a floating kingdom in which every man knowing his job (women are almost invisible here) can make the difference between life and death. The sacrifice of an individual for the sake of the ship is an agonising duty, yet when called upon to command Jack Aubrey is decisive, and the men respect him for it. Poor Midshipman Hollom (Lee Ingleby), on the other hand, dithers fatally and becomes the focal point of the superstitious brooding belowdecks. What is interesting here is that the film intimates that the sailors are right to be superstitious: once Hollom is gone the curse is lifted, and the becalmed ship suddenly has the wind in its sails again.

The film itself, after a period of languor, finds its sea legs when it slyly clinches two dominant motifs - science and leadership - for its grand finale. Stephen's entomological interest inadvertently offers Jack the bright idea of disguising the ship as a dilapidated whaler, thus drawing the French into firing range. His pep talk to the men - "D'you want to see a guillotine in Piccadilly? D'you want your children to sing The Marseillaise?" - is almost as riproaring as the battle that Weir and his team stage, a thunderous clash of swords and cannon which briefly requires the diminutive Blakeney to take charge of the ship while his captain makes busy with the cold steel.

The kid is one of the most affecting performers of the film, and reminds us what a good director of actors Weir can be. In Master and Commander he is right at the top of his game, as confident in the quieter passages as he is in the sound and flurry of action. It won't be everybody's idea of a night out: there's nary a whiff of romance, and a fair bit of men bawling out sea-shanties. But I have to say, it shivered my timbers.