Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Nov 19, 2003 12:03 am 
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Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. . . In three months' time will anyone be able to remember that mouthful? Still, by all appearances Weir's seafaring epic is splendidly done. Russell Crowe -- typically strong yet restrained -- does a sterling job as Jack Aubrey, captain of the Surprise. As Aubrey's combative boon companion and ship's surgeon, Stephen Maturin, Paul Bettany is excellent as usual. The scene is well set: the tall ships fare forth boldly on the roiling waves.

But a lot of people are coming out of the theater feeling bored. Is something wrong? It takes a while to see what. If you love salty swashbucklers, this sure seems, on the face of it, like a good one. Even for those who tire of shipboard conflicts, coming-of-age ordeals, and battles with French frigates, there's a brief but glorious sequence about the Galapagos. Those scenes on the island where the recently wounded Maturin hunts natural specimens with an assistant and an adorable little midshipman (Lord Blakeney, played by Max Perkis) have a fresh and memorable eighteenth-century look, as does the boy's sketchbook. (Of course the Galapagos weren't really described by a European till Charles Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle a century later.)

When you first see figures walking on the island you can’t help saying, “Thank God, dry land!” Weir’s handling of shipboard events isn’t totally claustrophobic, but, well, there are few respites. No women. Lots of men. Lots of rigging. Not much sunlight.

But -- a novelty -- lots of boys: we’re shown that in the late eighteenth century a British ship could have a bevy of extremely young (apparently mostly blond) midshipmen on board. Lord Blakeney is thirteen, and loses an arm, and is temporarily made captain: those are new twists for a seafaring epic. There’s one midshipman, though, who has the misfortune of being both dark-haired and nearly thirty. He commits suicide. No comment.

The trouble with the movie eventually dawns on one: there's no center. A movie like this, with its masses of men, of ropes, of shadows, its darkening storms and confused battles, needs tremendous polarities, titanic conflicts, and a huge narrative drive toward a suspenseful finale to pull things together – and those just aren’t there.

Just when they're needed, there are no simplifications. Certainly the crew includes stereotypes, but they're quite understated. For all its superficial noise and bluster, Master and Commander is too subtle and complicated. No overriding theme is present to meld the swarming mass of events on the old sailing ship together into a stirring adventure. Too many episodes have equal weight.*

What emerges best is the conflict and friendship between Captain “Lucky” Jack Aubrey and Maturin -- the two central figures in the Patrick O’Brian 20-novel series. But there are too many interesting subplots, and those remove any sense that Aubrey's chosen mission to chase down a huge French frigate is as all-important as it’s been cracked up to be early on. The younger midshipmen (especially Perkis) are particularly charming, but the movie dwells on them so much that they become distracting. The medical interludes are realistically gruesome, but again, they just add another dash of flavor without strengthening any central theme. And yet despite the gore, most of the nitty-gritty details of a seamen’s life are never seen. Subsidiary characters don't emerge clearly. There’s that episode of the unfortunate aging midshipman who sees no way out but to jump into the sea carrying a cannonball. But the only interpersonal relations that leave a lasting impression are those between captain and doctor.

It feels as though what the film would really be about if the screenplay worked is the meaning of leadership. To highlight this theme briefly, the aging midshipman acts as Aubrey's foil. He has lacked the courage and strength to lead his men and they’ve turned against him. Aubrey tells him – too late -- that he needs to focus not on being liked or hated but on simply asserting strong authority.

This is indeed what Aubrey himself seems to do. He’s a true leader. He leads. If you were stranded on a strip of ice like the men of the Endurance, Aubrey might pinch-hit for the redoubtable Shackleton. Maybe Aubrey's determination to conquer the French ship even when two encounters have failed is hubristic, but the men are ready to follow him wherever he wants to go. This, however, is a theme that is too often interrupted to reach satisfying development.

Not being a Patrick O’Brian fan, I can’t say how authentically the film evokes the atmosphere of the series. But it seems to me questionable that two of the Aubrey-Maturin novels were grafted together to make Master and Commander (its duality is signaled all too clearly in the double title and the colon). This is a problem that the writers never overcome. Obviously more focus was needed; but in their enthusiasm for all the details, the filmmakers failed to forge a unified and powerful story.

*A review by Stephen Hunter in the Washington Post ("Master and Commander': Heavy On the Ballast," November 14, 2003) develops this point in more detail.

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