November 21, 2003

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

I went to see the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World last night, and I must say I was impressed. As a long time fan of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series I had carefully kept my expectations low so as not to be disappointed. The finished product is much better than I had hoped, and though there are any number of absurdities I find myself rather more approving than not.

Spoiler warning: if you haven't seen the movie or read the books, you might not want to read further.

My first grounds for worry was the title, which is the concatenation of two of the titles in the Aubrey/Maturin series--the first book, in which Jack Aubrey is indeed a master and commander, and the tenth, in which Jack has long been a post-captain. I was afraid that the movie was going to be some kind of unholy conglomeration of disparate plots.

In fact, although the movie does draw on a fund of small incidents from here and there in the series, the plot is roughly based on the latter of the two books, The Far Side of the World, though there are some amusing changes. In O'Brian's novel, H.M.S. Surprise is ordered to follow the United States frigate Norfolk, of 32 guns, into the Pacific. The Norfolk has been sent to wreck havoc on English whalers; Surprise is to stop her from so doing. That's right--the bad guys are Americans. I imagine the producers found this unpalatable, but in any event the movie moves the action from during the War of 1812 to some seven years earlier, and transforms the Norfolk into the French privateer Acheron--which, though French, is not only American-built but is astonishingly like the American 32-gun heavy frigates which British ships didn't encounter until years later.

But that's by the way. I did not expect the plot to follow any of the O'Brian novels very accurately, if at all. What I was hoping for, at best, was an extra-canonical tale with the same characters and setting.

Fan-fiction, in other words.

What I got was a tale that, for all its changes, followed one of the books much better than I'd expected, and got quite a lot absolutely right.

To begin with, the visuals were perfect. H.M.S. Surprise, an old friend, was a delight to see. I can give the movie-makers no higher praise than this--I sat through the closing credits, as I always do, and when the Industrial Light and Magic and Weta Digital visual effects credits were scrolling by I was dumbfounded. It literally had not occurred to me, while watching it, that there were any special effects at all.

After the visuals, the sound was right. It's difficult while reading about a battle at sea to really picture the chaos and the smoke; it's even more difficult to imagine the sounds--the booming of the guns, the shouting, the small-arms fire, the rattle of splinters hitting the deck.

Next, the tone was right. It would be impossible for a two-hour movie to capture all the richness and nuances of a twenty-volume series, and to his credit Peter Weir chose to focus on just one aspect. The movie is a sea-story from start to finish. The ship is right, the foremast hands are right, the weather is right, Killick's grumbling is right, Tom Pullings is perfect (though William Mowett is a little too old), and the incidental details are (almost all) right. Jack is the competent leader of men and expert seaman; Stephen is the physician and naturalist. The other aspects of their characters simply do not appear.

Best of all, the movie makes no attempt to explain or to provide background. It simply tells a story; if you know the background you can enjoy it that much more. In particular, it doesn't simplify the background so that it can be manageably explained within the movie.

In short, Weir and company made a movie that will enhance my future enjoyment of O'Brian's series, and that's no small thing.

All of that said, there are a number of things I simply have to gripe about.

The first is the casting of Billy Boyd as Aubrey's coxswain, Barrett Bonden. Boyd captures Bonden's cheerfulness well-enough, and I can't fault his acting. But damn it, Bonden's supposed to be a champion boxer, not a hobbit. Every time Boyd came on screen I could hear Gandalf saying, "Fool of a Took!" Actually, I can't remember whether Boyd played Merry or Pippin; the two characters have so far been roughly interchangeable in Jackson's movies.

The second is the actor who played Stephen Maturin. Maturin is supposed to look older than he really is, and have a forbidding eye. The actor they chose looks far too boyish. He played the role well, though the script didn't show off Maturin's sense of humor.

Russell Crowe's Jack Aubrey was a little too good to be true, though that was the fault of the script, not Crowe's acting, which was excellent. My favorite moment is when Aubrey looks over the rail at a lovely Brazilian girl--not long after we see him writing a letter to his darling wife Sophie. For just a few seconds the air is full of sexual tension--Aubrey knows he has no time for dalliance, but oh if things were different. In that single moment Weir illuminates an important side of Aubrey's personality that would otherwise have been ignored.

But Weir's Jack Aubrey is a little too fond of making rousing speeches to the crew, and a little too witty. In the scene where Aubrey tells of how the great Admiral Nelson once asked him "in the most natural way" to pass the salt, Weir has Aubrey play it for laughs--and very well, too--which strikes me as wrong. It's a bit of narrative straight from one of the books, and I've always read it as Aubrey telling the story perfectly straight--aware, of course, that the remark is trivial, but nevertheless impressed with the great man's manner, and with his politeness to a young officer.

Maturin also gets his share of absurdities. Weir turns O'Brian's novel into a story of pride. Aubrey, we find, has exceeded his orders by following the Acheron past Brazil; he intends to capture the privateer come what may. It therefore falls to Maturin to argue with Aubrey over whether they should turn back, and the discussion grows quite heated. And yet, that's entirely wrong. As ship's surgeon, Maturin would have given Captain Aubrey his opinion of the health of the crew and the need for fresh food, and would have argued passionately about making landfall if it were necessary for that reason. As a republican and philosopher, he'd occasionally make remarks, more in irritation than in anger, about the hierarchical nature of the navy. And as Jack's friend he might have asked, calmly and without anger, whether they ought to turn back, and his friend Jack would have answered in the same vein. He'd never presume to question Jack's command of the ship--except where botanizing and naturalizing is concerned.

The scene in which Stephen remonstrates with Jack for breaking his promise about spending a week at the Galapagos Islands is straight out of O'Brian's novel--but even that isn't played quite right. Stephen knows perfectly well that all such promises are subject to the requirements of the service (though he'd rather not admit it), and Jack's perfectly correct that Stephen's completely irresponsible about time while he's gathering specimens. Thus, Stephen's speech should have much less cold anger and much more pique--in the book it remains a serious disagreement, but it also provides some comic relief.

Nevertheless, Weir and company did a fine job. If they weren't quite true to the spirit of O'Brian's books, I think they were as true as they could have been within the bounds of producing a salable movie. I don't know how the movie will strike someone who has never read O'Brian's work, but it worked pretty well for me.

Posted by Will Duquette at November 21, 2003 08:39 AM