It's an odd claim to make for a film that won the Oscar for cinematography, but at its best Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (released on video this week) is less a visual experience than an aural one. Director Peter Weir opens with aerial shots of a tall ship accompanied by on-screen text--"H.M.S. Surprise ... N. coast Brazil. Admiralty orders: ... 'Intercept French privateer Acheron en route to Pacific.'"--before swiftly shifting to a nighttime change of watch aboard the vessel. The camera glides past sleeping sailors and silent cannons; we see a hand flip an hourglass and another ring a bell; shadowy figures climb the rigging as others descend. The real function of the scene, however, is not to let us see--it takes place, after all, at night--but to let us hear. And what we hear is a marvel. Weir and his sound people fill the darkness with the low gurgle of the sea, the heavy creak of the hull, the squeak of hammocks and lanterns swaying with the ship's roll, the strain of rope ladders carrying men's weight. The scene has no narrative or expository purpose, but it announces Weir's intentions with wordless clarity: Master and Commander may feature crashing naval battles and acts of derring-do, but its primary concern will be the portrayal of life aboard this ship, the mundane rhythms and chores that were part of life in the Royal Navy circa 1800.
The Surprise is the favorite ship of Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), appearing in more than half of the twenty historical novels by Patrick O'Brian from which Master and Commander was adapted. There are few remaining accolades to throw in the direction of these extraordinary books, which center on the lives of Aubrey and his physician-comrade Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany in the film), so I won't bother to add mine. I'll just cite the greater literary authority of John Bayley, who distinguished them from the seafaring adventures of C.S. Forester thus: "Although [O'Brian] is dutiful about giving us marine warfare ... his real interest is in the ships and the crews, in naval custom, habit, and routine, the daily ritual of shipboard life and the interplay of personality in the confinement of a wooden world. His ships are as intimate to us as Sterne's Shandy Hall or Jane Austen's village of Highbury in Emma ... except that [O'Brian's] village happens to be a wooden ship of war at the apogee of a great Navy's world sea power."
For all the complaints about liberties Weir took in his adaptation, which draws principally from the first and tenth books in O'Brian's series, he clearly understands this central point. The plot of Master and Commander is straightforward: The Surprise has been sent to destroy the French ship Acheron, which has in turn set its sights on destroying Surprise. The two ships cat-and-mouse their way (occasionally swapping roles) down the Eastern coast of South America, around the tip of Cape Horn, back up the Western coast, and on to the Galapogos Islands. In addition to two battles with the Acheron that serve to bookend the movie--the first of them a harrowing, revelatory piece of filmmaking--the Surprise deals with seas both too rough and too calm, a near-mutiny against a junior officer, and three tricky surgeries performed by Maturin (one on himself). Such episodes, in the movie as in the books, serve largely as opportunities for scrutinizing the social dynamics of naval life, the tensions between loyalty and resentment, friendship and duty, social class and military rank: Old seadogs take orders from peach-faced teenage officers; young aristocrats compete for the privilege of being the first in harm's way; and, always, Aubrey struggles to balance his dual relationship as Maturin's bosom friend and commanding officer.
Weir is aided in his anthropological and psychological explorations by Crowe, whose understated performance never threatens to overwhelm the subtle interplay of shipboard life, and Bettany, whose Maturin, an amateur naturalist and borderline anarchist, broadens the movie's subject matter beyond naval warfare. (The Maturin of the film is a narrow slice of the Maturin of the books, who is also, on occasion, a spy, a duelist, and an assassin. While the necessity of this narrative simplification is clear enough, it's less apparent why the character, introduced by O'Brian as "a small, dark, white-faced creature" is played by an actor who is six foot three, blond, and handsome. Apparently Hollywood makes giants of us all.) In the end, though, the film belongs to its supporting cast of mostly unknowns, whom Weir sketches with care: the grizzled sailor whom the crew treats as a quasi-mystic following his recovery from shipboard brain surgery (George Innes); the 13-year-old midshipman who, like his hero Lord Nelson, loses an arm in battle (Max Pirkis); the ill-fortuned "Jonah" despised by the crew (Lee Ingleby); and so on.
For all his emotional investment in the crew of the Surprise, Weir doesn't stoop to melodrama. (The jarring exception is a slow-motion suicide that recalls the director's heavy-handed treatment of Neil's death in Dead Poets Society.) Crewmembers die, and the film, like their shipmates, goes on. The tone is neither tragic nor uncaring. This is war, after all, and war in the days before modern medicine; death is an anticipated, even inevitable occurrence. There's something refreshing about this stoicism, perhaps because it represents so striking a departure from the usual aesthetic of modern film.