“This ship is England,” declares Capt. Jack Aubrey as he rouses his men to do battle with a French frigate sent by Napoleon. As Russell Crowe plays him in Peter Weir’s splendid new adventure film, “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” they’d follow him almost anywhere.
It's easy to see why. “Lucky Jack,” who once sailed with Lord Nelson, is charismatic and courageous, a born leader who is both sensitive to his men’s complaints and wary of their potential for rebellion. He is, of course, not without his faults - which his best friend, Dr. Stephen Maturin, points out in a series of scenes in which he warns Jack about arrogance and the corrupting nature of power.
These arguments never become tiresome, perhaps because the two men are so close that they function like the two halves of one soul: taking sides, playing devil’s advocate, sometimes erupting into heated discussions. Each viewpoint gets a thorough airing, then Stephen takes up his cello, Jack dusts off his violin, and they drown their disagreements in music.
Stephen is played by Paul Bettany, who made such a startling impression as Crowe’s imaginary roommate in “A Beautiful Mind,” and he comes pretty close to walking off with the picture. Partly this is because Crowe is playing the more conventional hero, and Bettany has the intriguing role of a critical friend who gets his way more often than not.
During the first half of the movie, they seem to be heading for permanent trouble, but later their goals start to dovetail, especially when Stephen’s life is threatened during a freak accident and the ship makes an unscheduled stop in the Galapagos Islands. The captain is smart enough to realize that the doctor is not simply his friend but a necessity. Their world would become seriously unbalanced if either disappeared.
Based on a series of novels by Patrick O’Brian, “Master and Commander” takes place in 1805. The ocean has become a battlefield, England is attempting to keep Napoleon hemmed in, and Jack’s ship is nearly wiped out by its violent first encounter with the French vessel.
While the battle scenes approach the graphic quality of “Saving Private Ryan,” often it’s the soundtrack that makes the strongest impression. Reminiscent of the Sensurround effects used 30 years ago for “Earthquake,” the thunder of cannon balls threatens to blow out the speakers.
Several composers worked on the score, but the most memorable music is Vaughan Williams’ enthralling 1910 piece, “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis,” which is extensively used for a catastrophic storm at sea. As Weir has done so often in the past, he uses existing music to freshen familiar images.
Produced by three studios (Fox, Miramax, Universal) and costing $120 million, “Master and Commander” may not seem as personal as such Weir productions as “Gallipoli” or “The Truman Show.” It’s a big picture, in the old-fashioned tradition of pre-Johnny Depp sea adventures, yet it doesn’t feel compromised. There are moments, especially when the story fatalistically hints at inexplicable/supernatural forces, when it feels very much like a Weir movie.
John Hartl is the film critic for MSNBC.com