Director Peter Weir and co-writer John Collee stay faithful to the spirit of Patrick O'Brian's original novel, but that fidelity poses a challenge for a conventional screen story. O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novels of Napoleonic sea battles have a passionate following, but they elevate procedure over plot. You read them longing for a nautical dictionary, but eventually appreciate the author's impeccable historic re-creation.
O'Brian began his series with Master and Commander, but Weir and co-writer Collee adapt the plot of the 10th novel, The Far Side of the World. As a sweeping period piece, it boasts a convincing cast, credible dialogue and truthful situations, but it'll appeal more to History Channel fans than the general movie audience.
Master and Commander's story could not be more direct. The opening titles reveal the orders of the HMS Surprise to find and engage the Acheron, a marauding French vessel terrorizing the South Seas. And that's just what happens, in a series of battles and pursuits.
The opening sets the tone, as a Surprise crewman glimpses something ominous in the morning fog. Capt. Jack "Lucky" Aubrey (Russell Crowe) sees a flash of light and bellows for his crew to brace for cannon fire. The subsequent sea battle does for fighting ships what the TV series "ER" did for operating rooms: It puts the viewer shoulder-to-shoulder with people in the midst of high-adrenaline work. You may not comprehend much of their jargon or their individual tasks, but you definitely feel a part of the action.
We expect to get to know the crew better after the heavily damaged Surprise escapes the Acheron, but instead they tend to remain sketches. We instinctively like such players as Robert Pugh and Lord of the Rings' Billy Boyd, but by the film's ending we don't know their roles any better than at its beginning.
The film's central friendship lies between Aubrey and his ship's surgeon, Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany, who played Crowe's imaginary friend in A Beautiful Mind). Maturin's soft-spoken man of science gives Aubrey a non-military perspective, reminding the captain to be a human being as well as a naval officer. The character, too, lets Crowe lighten up as an actor. He shows how the lonely-at-the-top responsibilities weigh on Aubrey, but also relishes the captain's bad puns and sheer love of winning that has nothing to do with crown or country.
The longer we spend aboard the Surprise, the more we find a kind of camaraderie, if not intimacy. The most sympathetic character is Blakeney (Max Pirkis), a shockingly young midshipman wounded in the first attack. One of the film's most harrowing moments shows Blakeney's face when he realizes he's about to have his arm amputated.
Weir vividly captures the dangers of the sailor's life, such as the bloody, cutlass-to-cutlass duels when boarding an enemy ship, or the terrifying squall that forces Aubrey to sacrifice one crewman's life to save the rest. Master and Commander could coast on the strength of its sound effects alone, as we hear coils of rope snap taut as the wind raises, and masts splinter under booming cannonball fire.
Master and Commander seldom bows to movie conventions by, say, personalizing the enemy captain as a melodramatic villain, or contriving to include a romantic subplot (a woman appears only in a single shot). While you end up wishing that the film would stand at ease a bit more, to its credit, Crowe, Weir and their crew never neglect their duty to present a documentary-level depiction of naval life.