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It’s 1805 and the British are fighting the French under Napoleon. Lord Nelson is the hero standing between victory and disaster. Royal British Navy Captain ‘Lucky’ Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) is off the coast of Brazil on his 28-gun HMS Surprise with his friend and the ship’s doctor Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), who is also a serious hobby naturalist. Aubrey’s orders are to hunt down the French Privateer, the Acheron, but the French ship finds the Surprise and launches her own surprise, crippling it and killing several men, injuring many more. Aubrey is determined to hit back, pursuing the enemy from Brazil round the stormy Cape Horn and on to the Galapagos Islands, but his naval duties come into conflict with his friendship, forcing him finally to make a decision, on which hangs many lives and his own reputation.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
A stupendous production, Master and Commander satisfies as richly as a book might, immersing us in a world of its people and its places. In this case, the places are rather cramped, and infernally dangerous, aboard a British warship during the Napoleonic wars. And its people, albeit costumed in the uniforms of the era, are definitely recognisable; their strengths and weaknesses, their fears and their hopes are as tangible as our own. 

This elevates what is already a superior seafaring adventure to a wonderful human drama. Russell Crowe is thoroughly convincing as Captain Aubrey, drawing our empathy without forgetting to layer the character with weaknesses and conflicts, making him a man we could know and understand. He doesn’t play it to be likable, but true; master of his ship and commander of his men, as caring for them as he is for his formal duties. 

Paul Bettany is a marvellous match as his character-complementary friend, and so is every single member of the cast, from supports (like the remarkable 13 year old Max Pirkis, playing the young Lord Blakeney) to the extras. The humanity of Weir’s adaptation - and direction - soars from the screen, and his insistence on realism and detail pays off in pulling us into the story, onto the boat and inside the men’s hearts and minds. 

There is no cheap sentimentality, but lots of sentiment. The veracity of the production design is matched by terrible realism in the battle scenes, and the dynamics of the screenplay’s structure are well judged to give a sense of rhythm to the film which is at once viscerally invigorating and emotionally fulfilling, as only the best story tellers know how. 

Review by Louise Keller:
A stirring epic adventure on the high seas, where loyalty, valour and friendship are as critical as the wind, Master and Commander takes us back in time and place to experience what it was like – from mere survival to the hazards of battle. With meticulous attention paid to ensure accuracy of the time, we board one of Nelson’s ships, some 200 years ago under the command of born leader Captain Jack Aubrey. Drawing on the lifetime of research that produced Patrick O’Brian’s 20 volume Aubrey/Maturin opus, director Peter Weir collaborated with writer John Collee to construct a script that would satisfy both the ardent fans of the novel, as well as those who knew little or nothing about the period. 

While historical accuracy may be the dressing, with its impressive production design and costumes, Weir’s great achievement is to allow us to taste the salt air and feel the lurch of the vessel as it is tossed on unforgiving rolling walls of water. Critical to the journey and our understanding of life as it was, is the casting of the larger-than-life character of Jack Aubrey, who inspires and instils loyalty among his crew. 

Russell Crowe is the perfect choice – his screen presence and authority unquestionable. And Crowe gets his hair wet as he fills the well-travelled boots of the man who would lead 196 souls through unchartered waters to the unknown. ‘Name a shrub after me,’ he tells his friend, ‘something prickly and hard to eradicate.’ Tyrant or leader? Commander or friend? 

The integration of the personal friendship between the captain and the ship’s doctor (‘a fighting naturalist’) is beautifully drawn, and the scenes where Aubrey’s violin plays a harmonious tune with Maturin’s cello are both incongruous and moving. There’s even a scene when both characters strum their instruments like a guitar, as if shaking up the rules. A stunning score including strains of Bach and Mozart accentuates the era and the extraordinary special effects (including real-life footage of an actual storm seamlessly entwined) do not appear to be special effects at all. 

We are just swept away by the reality. Through the polished lens of cinematographer Russell Boyd, everyone is up to the task. Paul Bettany’s Maturin is superb, as is every one of the hand-picked cast (mostly of theatre background). I especially warmed to thirteen-year old Max Pirkis’s midshipman Lord Blakeney, whose youthful enthusiasm and sensitivity brings some heartfelt moments. The ropes that support the massive sails are an intricate web and there is a constant reminder of the times with the manual turning of the hourglass, the chime of the ship’s bell. ‘I can harness the wind,’ says Aubrey, ‘but I’m not its creator.’ From its touches of humour to its moments of terror, Master and Commander is a masterful experience. It may be the closest you ever get to tasting life as an adventurer and explorer. Don’t miss the chance.

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CAST: Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, James D’Arcy, Edward Woodall, Chris Larkin, Max Pirkis, Jack Randall, Max Benitz, Lee Ingleby

PRODUCER: Samuel Goldwyn jnr, Peter Weir, Duncan Henderson

DIRECTOR: Peter Weir

SCRIPT: Peter Weir, John Collee (novels by Patrick O’Brian)


EDITOR: Lee Smith

MUSIC: Iva Davies, Christopher Gordon, Richard Tognetti


RUNNING TIME: 132 minutes


AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: December 4, 2003

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