During the Napoleonic Wars, a brash British captain pushes his ship and crew to their limits in pursuit of a formidable French war vessel around South America.
Year 2, Film #27
THE REVIEW: Comparisons can easily be made between Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and the more popular Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Both films take place on the open ocean and both involve the British navy and naval warfare. But whereas the Pirates films are more action/adventure films with supernatural elements, Master and Commander is a dramatic film with a bit of action thrown in. This comparison is to establish both the positives and negatives to Master and Commander.
The big positive, and what this film exceeds at beyond imagination, is gritty realism and accuracy. A lot of Master and Commander, especially in the first few scenes, is just a depiction of life on a ship. Scrubbing the deck, hoisting the sails, crammed below deck. Making you feel like you are on, and are a part of, the HMS Surprise is the best part about the film. I often talk about how I love being transported to a different place or see something I never have before (yesterday with newspaper journalism in State of Play for example) and this is no exception. To reiterate why I feel this trait is so important in a film and makes it succeed more than just as a personal preference for me, is that it establishes credibility. You believe what you’re watching on screen. So, when the fictionalized or dramatized account of an event (this film is based on true stories, adapted from three novels by Patrick O’Brian) happens, there is no suspension of disbelief required to enjoy what’s being shown; you just watch. And this applies to everything here from the shipmate’s actions, the commands being given, and the feelings of everyone on board (i.e. thoughts of mutiny when water was rationed).
The negative is where comparing the two films really comes into play. Master and Commander is a drama, and for the most part that shines through. Captain Aubrey (Russell Crowe) who commands the Surprise, has orders to “Sink, Burn or take her a Prize” where her is referring to the Acheron, a French frigate. There is a lot of action involved (who can say no to cannons?), but it really is more about the journey the crew goes on to find the Acheron and their engagements with the ship. However, there are moments (primarily the final showdown) where the film tries to be more like Pirates than its own thing. The focus is the action and the action overwhelms everything else. To be clear, this isn’t the probably per se. Pirates is the film I’m using for comparison because that does action well, but not so much the drama. Each film has it’s own wheelhouse where it’s strong. My point in all this is that Master and Commander misses its strengths at the end. Instead of continuing with its amazing realism and accuracy, it gives in to the big blockbuster genre and attempts to wow with different things. It’s this shift from drama and subtle interactions to major explosions and warfare where it loses it. Master and Commander was nominated for, and won, many cinematography awards. This I disagree with for the sole reason that when the cinematography was needed the most, it failed. The final showdown is where this transition from drama to action film takes place and it’s also the moment when you can’t tell what’s going on. Great cinematography would make it very clear which side was which—the British and the French—and when soldiers started boarding the enemy ship to engage in physical combat, the cinematography should make it easy to track the opposing sides. A great example of how this can be done is in The Hunt for Red October where the interiors of the two submarines were lit with different colors so you could instantly tell which sub you were on at any given moment. In Master and Commander everyone on both sides is dressed in a combination of white, blue, and red, and have similar weapons. That could be chalked up to the costume or prop departments, but I argue it’s the cinematography. For the first time, at least the first noticeable time, the film switches to shaky cam and extremely fast cutting. Combine that with close-ups and no really clear indicator of what direction each shot takes place and I quickly was lost with what was happening. One side had the clear advantage at the beginning, but then it seemed to switch the the other side; however, the first side never seemed to receive damage. It’s a big mess that’s hard to sort through, and such a change in direction at the end of the film was a bit disappointing.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World provides some quality entertainment. It’s a blockbuster-level film with some big name stars and incredible sets, but has the focus of a more serious and dramatic film. You see what life at sea was like back in 1805 and understand the tension that arose as Napoleon was at the peak of his power. The ending delivers some action, but it’s poorly done and takes away from what made the film so great earlier on. Still, recommended for any fan of the broad genres and highly recommended for fans of historical films dealing with naval engagements.
THE RATING: 4 out of 5