I imagine life at sea must be terribly dull. What would you do all day? Would you get the sense that, no matter how far you traveled, the ocean was big enough to prevent you from ever arriving anywhere?
“Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” is like a sea journey, sailing on for 138 minutes without any particular destination in mind. You see plenty of lovely sights, and get a few snatches of swashbuckling and derring-do, but you get all that without benefit of plot or character development. This is a film that is literally all about the journey, not the destination. It is, though, a rather entertaining journey at times, and never a dull one.
Our leader is Capt. Jack Aubrey, played by Russell Crowe, who must be a great actor because he’s so likable in his movies even though he’s a jerk in real life. The year is 1805, and Aubrey is piloting the HMS Surprise, out chasing down one of Napoleon’s boats, which is said to be intent on spreading the Napoleonic Wars to South America.
The Surprise is damaged in an early skirmish with the French vessel, but Aubrey does not turn back. He insists on repairing the ship at sea even as it continues its pursuit. This is folly, says the ship’s surgeon, Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), who is also Aubrey’s best friend. Stephen suggests it’s Aubrey’s personal pride that’s getting in the way of making a more rational decision, and that his crew’s lives are at stake. Aubrey says no, that’s not it, and the matter is dropped.
Did you blink? Because if you did, you missed all you’re going to get in the way of character arcs or personal struggles. Unlike most protagonists, Aubrey does not learn, grow or change over the course of the film. He’s presented as a larger-than-life leader who doesn’t make mistakes, and even his apparent mistakes turn out for the best.
It’s no wonder his crewmen love him, and love him they do. A merrier bunch of seamen never sailed the seven seas. They sit around singing songs quite a bit (answering the “what would you do all day?” question), which is something men nowadays just don’t do. They have no problem following Aubrey wherever he leads them, and for his part, Aubrey is a compassionate, avuncular captain. He knows everyone’s names and pays special attention to the young apprentice boys onboard, ensuring they feel as much a part of the crew as the grownups.
The direction by Peter Weir (“The Truman Show,” “Dead Poets Society”) is praiseworthy indeed, as nearly the entire film takes place on the open sea, and the guy actually had a real ship built for that reason. It is far more exhilarating to see actual people on an actual boat on the actual ocean than it is to see them computer-generated, or to have scenes shot in water tanks on studio lots. Where trickery has been used, it’s been integrated seamlessly with the real thing. As a viewer, it’s a little thrilling to be part of a seafaring adventure, even if we’re not really going anywhere.
B- (2 hrs., 18 min.; )