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If you think violins are for sissies, try telling Russell Crowe, who found it the hardest thing he’s ever had to master for a role, in his latest film Master and Commander, in which he plays a tough naval Captain whose sense of duty collides with his sense of friendship. And music is, in some ways, the key to the character, reports Andrew L. Urban.

Sword fights are nothing compared to learning the violin, as Russell Crowe found out, and nobody will be surprised that Crowe learnt the violin well enough to play it, even though he only had to mime to Richard Tognetti’s actual music. Ah, but Crowe doesn’t just fiddle about with a character; he becomes adept at everything his character does, as part of the osmosis of becoming him. In this case, the Royal Navy’s Captain Jack Aubrey, master of the 28-gun Surprise, in Master and Commander; Far Side of the World, Peter Weir’s adaptation of a Patrick O’Brian novel. 

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.
*In the novel it’s 1815 and the British are fighting the Americans – but as you’ll notice, the Americans financed the movie, and the French didn’t.

"good friends"

Tognetti and Crowe are as good friends as are Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. Bettany’s character plays the cello in on-board duets that form part of the bond between the two men, playing music that contrasts with the brutality of Napoleonic warfare at sea. If you have trouble believing that men like that play music like that, you should have been with me in Los Alamos before the end of the Cold War, where American scientists working on weapons research to make the killing of enemy thousands easier, would assemble on Sunday mornings to sing with heavenly passion in the choir, or play piano privately. 

Tognetti, artistic director of the acclaimed Australian Chamber Orchestra, was on call for the entire four month shoot in Mexico, so whenever an opportunity arose in Crowe’s crazy schedule, they could jam in some piano training. “It was gruelling. If I break it down, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done for a film,” he told journalist Penny McLeod.

But it was crucial that the duets come off in every sense, on every level. These moments provide some of the most effective, profound and wordless snapshots into the souls of the characters, their playing both an expression of music, and of their own souls. In a way, their music was a key to their characters. That’s what Crowe understood instinctively. Not surprising, since he’s a musician as much as an actor. Indeed, music is his refuge, and where you’d find him if ever he gave up acting. Which is not impossible.

Tognetti and Crowe are both 38, and they’ve been friends for over a dozen years. Who else but Tognetti, then, to invite on board as the music man for this film. They met at a New York concert, where Crowe was an invited guest and Tognetti was playing with the ACO. When the company sponsoring the grog pulled out mid-concert, Crowe came to the rescue and paid for the after party champagne. The night launched a beautiful friendship, and one that includes mutual professional admiration and respect. 

Crowe’s musical interests (rock, classical, jazz, folk) are little known by either his movie fans or the followers of Thirty Odd Foot of Grunts. In fact, he not only has a “strong understanding of of the mood colours in music,” according to their shared friend Paul Dyer (artistic director of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra), who is quoted as saying of Crow, “he is very underestimated in his knowledge of music. His education in, and knowledge of, all forms of creative arts is immense.” As Crowe has said himself, he needs music to feel complete; it’s central to his life.

"a totally romantic instrument"

In the classical collection, Crowe enjoys Boccherini (played in parts of the soundtrack from Master and Commander), and prefers the viola to the violin. But he still fell in love with the violin when learning to play it; “it’s a totally romantic instrument,” he told McLeod, “and I always refer to it in the feminine – and I don’t mean any offence to anyone – but it’s just the way it felt. If you’re strong with the violin you can get something quite mystical; if you’re aggressive, you get nothing.”

Published December 4, 2003

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