At the top of this pyramid stands Russell Crowe’s Jack Aubrey. 

MASTER AND COMMANDER

An Illusion review by Joan Ellis   


           “Master and Commander” triumphs over all contemporary odds.  Director and co-writer Peter Weir’s movie is deeply rooted in the marvelous detail of Patrick O’Brian’s sea novels and makes fine use of O’Brian’s mastery of detail; yet he manages to resist today’s controlling force of political correctness and sentimentality.  This may be the first time you have watched a costume epic that doesn’t feel obliged to be part of your era.  Instead, it makes you part of theirs.

                It is 1805, and the HMS Surprise, under the command of Commander Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), has been ordered to catch and destroy a French ship that is, apparently, planning to take Napolean’s war to the south Pacific.  The French target ship is bigger and faster than the Surprise and has some legendary strengths that enliven the pursuit with mythic qualities.  Watch for two terrific sequences where each ship’s captain outwits the other.

                Commander Aubrey’s howl, “This ship is England!” is enough to keep the audience on board throughout.  If the goal is the French ship, the irrisistible magnet for us all is the wealth of detail, nautical and behavioral, that is packed into everyday life on the ship. The sounds of straining ropes and pulleys, of flapping sail and dark weather, of close quarters and fear – all scream loudly in the silence.  Somehow, without being told, we begin to realize that the same experience on land - a fire or storm damage – could be contained, but not here off the west coast of South America.  It is this accumulation of the dangers that demands such stringent hierarchy.

                At the top of this pyramid stands Russell Crowe’s Jack Aubrey.  In an outstanding performance,  Crowe makes Aubrey a constant presence, not the usual mixture of the bad and good of human behavior. We don’t have to watch this leader work toward an epiphany.  He and his ship move through their assignment on the principles of decency and honor that he establishes so surely that he doesn’t even have to raise his voice.

                There is a second lovely performance by Paul Bettany as Dr. Stephen Maturin, ship’s doctor and resident naturalist, and a third by Max Pirkis as Blakeney.  The naturalist tutors the young boy in creatures and values, and together, these three set the example for the crew.  That’s how it’s done in this film – no preaching, no lessons, simply by example.

                Left to our own, we can sink into the feeling of the ship and the weather, and what a time we have.  The ship’s model we saw in an early scene delivers its promised significance.   Our heroes stay true to themselves, and when finally we leave the theater we know we have seen – in a descriptive apt in the old days but not so much any more - a great story well told   For once, congratulations to an international team that includes even Hollywood.


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