Do you remember the strange several years when everyone was convinced that Russell Crowe was both good-looking and a good actor? Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary on both fronts? We gave this man an Academy Award!

Just…wow.

Anyway, Master and Commander is probably my favorite Russell Crowe movie, and that’s mostly in spite of him, and in spite of its…not really being all that good. When I saw it the first time, I hadn’t read any of the Aubrey-Maturin novels on which it is ostensibly based, and I rather liked it. Now I have read fourteen of the Aubrey-Maturin novels on which it is ostensibly based, and I like it no less.  This movie follows the plot of no single O’Brian novel, neither the one called Master and Commander nor the one called The Far Side of the World. Nor of any other. Which is fine, really; those novels succeed better at atmosphere than at plot. I have heard on good authority that this is a fairly verisimilitudinous reflection of naval life. The film also aims for atmosphere, sketching your favorite characters from the books in a pastiche of more or less plausible events that take place near the Galapagos and involve fighting the French navy.

Jack Aubrey (Crowe), the titular master and commander, is blond, sanguine, and incipiently fat. He’s smirkingly terrible and his accent is worse. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany) is as unattractive as they can make him as the doctor and naturalist who spends most of his time kvetching that a warship is not his private exploratory vessel. He has no Irish accent and is not a spy, so devotés of the books may resent it; I enjoy that he can walk in a straight line and probably add. James D’Arcy plays the good-looking lieutenant Tom Pullings, and I love him. That’s all Tom Pullings ever does–be good-looking and lieutenant as well as he bloody can. Billy Boyd is awful as the boatswain Bonden, but they don’t give Bonden a damn thing to do, so that’s the real problem.

Max Pirkis is an amalgam of various tiny midshipmen, including one named Reade and one named Blakeney, and he, as also playing Octavian in HBO’s Rome, is a revelatory, heartbreaking gem. Early on he loses an arm, and Aubrey gives him a biography of Lord Nelson, and I cry. So much. Later on, he squeakingly collects beetles for Maturin, still later he squeakingly helps decide the course of a battle with the French vessel Acheron. He’s wonderful.

This film’s chief failure is that it captures neither the unremitting navy-ness of the books nor the rather charming blink-and-you-missed-it humor. In addition it’s scattershot, trying to cobble together one full plot from a dozen loosely connected episodes. But, if you like movies about old boats and aren’t terrifically particular, you’ll love this. If not, you’ll be annoyed by the winking in-jokes, the borderline incoherence, and Russell Crowe.

Stray observations:

  • This film makes heavy, heavy use of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis,” and, while I deeply love that piece of music in all its forms, the anachronism makes me insane.
  • I really wish there had been more of these movies, as it clearly looked like they were planned, and I would eat them up like candy. However, I also see why there weren’t more–the movie strikes a bad balance between pleasing lovers of the books and pleasing neophytes, and ends up pleasing no-one. Also it made $50 million less than it cost.

Director: Peter Weir
Rating: PG-13
Length: 138 minutes
Score: 4/5

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