I have not read any of the novels by Patrick O’Brian on which Peter Weir’s Master and Commander is based, but given the film’s obvious expense, it is presumably a respectable adaptation. Set in the Napoleonic era, it stars Russell Crowe as Jack Aubrey, Captain of the British frigate “Surprise.” He and his crew are chasing the French ship “Acheron” through South American waters, with a culminating encounter near the Galapagos Islands. The extended voyage makes it possible to show the grimy routines of naval life, the challenges of the weather, the emotional travails of the crew and just about everything else that can be depicted in a family-oriented mega-production. At times almost nauseatingly detailed, it is a carefully crafted, intelligent spectacle that puts us through a lot. The question is whether it is worth the ordeal.
It isn’t for lack of trying. Much time is spent building character through the tensions and loyalties of the sailors. While the genre requires some stereotypes (Aubrey, for example, is a born leader, a brilliant seaman, tough-minded, but sensitive) everyone is given a few atypical quirks. The most obviously flawed is Midshipman Hollam (Lee Ingleby), whose neurotic self-doubts have tragic consequences. The ship’s surgeon, Stephen Marturin (Paul Bettany) is supposedly fascinated by the Galapagos in what looks suspiciously like an effort to flatter the audience for knowing the islands’ importance. His friendship with Aubrey, indeed all the character details, feel more obligatory than convincing. Only the youthful Midshipman Blakeney (Max Pirkis) connects with the viewer and when Hollam commits suicide, his death has more visual than emotional impact.
Part of the problem is that the dialogue is often almost unintelligible as thick accents, rapid delivery and an unfamiliar sailors’ argot get buried under loud effects. Even when you can understand the dialogue, important plot points are frequently obscured by the frenetic pace of the action. Not least of these confused moments is the conclusion, when a chance comment from the doctor makes Aubrey realize he’s been fooled, setting the wheels in motion for a return engagement. At least that is what seems to be happening. If the credits didn’t start rolling, we might well expect to be swept into another murkily motivated conflict.
Those credits hint at why Master and Commander, for all the good in it, is vaguely unsatisfying. Not because they feel nearly as long as the movie itself, but because of the digital fussiness they reveal about what we have seen. It is to the countless technicians’ credit that you cannot tell what is “real” and what is synthetic and they certainly deserve recognition for their work. But the challenge to make something utterly manufactured seem as wild and dangerous as the sea may have caused all involved to forget why they were bothering. Avoiding the inconveniences and expense of “real” photography also eliminates the richness of the aleatory. The technical perfection produces something more remote and studied than moving.