A review requested by Andrew Testerman, with thanks for contributing to the ACS Fundraiser.

There are many things to say about Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, nearly all of them very nice - for example, I might go around calling it the best film directed by the great, perpetually under-appreciated Peter Weir outside of his native Australia, and the one that most perfectly embodies what I think to be the central theme of his career. And we will come back to those things in a little while, because what I want to lead off with especially is that for all the things it excels at, this is first and foremost one of the masterpieces of sound mixing and sound design of the 21st Century. It's hard for an outsider to say who we need to single out of the slurry of names that are listed in the sound section of of the end credits; the Oscar nominees were Richard King (who won, for Sound Editing), and Paul Massey, Doug Hemphill, & Art Rochester (for Sound Mixing, losing as part of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King's 11-for-11 sweep in 2003), so that's a place to start.

But that's mostly irrelevant. All those crew heads and technicians on the film's sound team are, collectively, its strongest and maybe even its most important element. The peculiar effect of Master and Commander, one of the most realistically involving and simultaneously one of the most artistically abstracted of all movies of shipboard life, owes plenty to every last immaculate member of the production team, but we encounter the sound pretty much first thing, before the acting, costumes, cinematography, or really even the sets have had a chance to sink in. There are creaks from every side, gentle ocean noises just barely audible behind the groan of swollen wood, and tiny little noises of who knows what provenance creeping in from every corner, pushed hard by the astonishingly loud rear surround channels.* We are viscerally present inside the bowels of HMS Surprise from the very instant that the curt, efficient title cards have finished introducing her.

The setting is April, 1805, during the Napoleonic Wars, and the Surprise is far from the main fight - on the far side of the world, you might almost say, except that she'll end up going even farther, so it's best not to be premature. Her mission, as assigned to the eminently capable Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), is to track down the French privateer Acheron, known to be haunting the coast of Brazil, way the hell out there in the Americas. Aubrey pursues this mission with a zeal that starts to go beyond mere duty to orders; his crew, in fact, are starting to regard him as an out-and-out Ahab, or they would if Moby Dick existed yet in 1805. The only person willing to call him out to his face is his dear friend, the ship's doctor and resident naturalist Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), but Aubrey's matter-of-fact conviction that the Acheron, unchecked, could devastate the British whaling fleet and otherwise wreak hell on the British maritime effort against Napoleon carries the day. When the time comes, every man on the Surprise is ready to give their all to the fight, even coming up with some of the cunning schemes Aubrey puts into play to beat the faster, more maneuverable, and better-armed Acheron.

That story, as synthesised from several books in a 20-volume, 30-year series authored by Patrick O'Brian, is perfectly, absolutely fine. It is undoubtedly best if you wander into the film already interested in British military history in the early 19th Century, and the legacy of the British Navy during that period especially. But one of the things Master and Commander is particularly good at is finding away to make you interested in all of that even if you weren't in the first place: a peculiar combination of poetic diffusion and blunt, hammy physicality get one all worked up in the material initially, and the importance that the characters ascribe to the events does the rest to make.

Let us not make too many claims for the wartime story, though: it's not a first-order priority of Weir as director, nor as co-writer alongside John Collee. The tensions and conflict of the Surprise's pursuit of the Acheron are humming noise in the background for the most part, while the film draws our primary attention in much closer. It's a character study far more than it's ever a war drama, though "character study" is at least partially misleading. "Study of relationships between characters" is closer. Aubrey and Maturin are both, in themselves, tremendously well-defined figures, with Crowe and Bettany's tremendously undervalued performances shining in the creation of living human beings with rich interior lives, but who also feel like they were alive and feeling and thinking in 1805, rather than 2003. That's a great achievement, but Master and Commander isn't, as such, about Aubrey and/or Maturin. The protagonist is, rather, a sort of composite "Aubrey and Maturin" unit; while Aubrey is always positioned as the main character, and the casting of Crowe near his all-time peak of popularity against the functionally unknown Bettany only helps with that, it's less the captain as the isolated man of wisdom and action who emerges as the hero of the film, than the synthesis of knowledge, leadership, and caution that comes from Aubrey relying upon Maturin to be his conscience and devil's advocate.

Meanwhile, the crew itself emerges as a similar composite figure: while several members of the crew are given moments that set them apart, or entire plot arcs that are complete in and of themselves, and wholly unrelated to the Aubrey-Maturin spine of the film, it's the idea of a conglomeration of individuals that drives the film as much as those individuals itself. The key idea in Weir's cinema, I think, present in some form in virtually all of his best films, is the functioning of an isolated social unit: the boarding school in Picnic at Hanging Rock, the TV studio village of The Truman Show, the Amish community in Witness, to name three. There's no more automatically isolated place on Earth than on the crew of a ship at sea in the era before electronic communication, and Master and Commander presents and even more purified vision of that isolation than most tall ship movies: other than a few cursory shots, there are no attempts to look at the world outside of the Surprise, or to contextualise her within the world she inhabits. The vast majority of the images in the film are from onboard the ship and pointed inwards. We are bound up with the crew, and we are invited to watch it in great detail as the individual members engage with their individual tasks, and the moment-by-moment rhythm of life drowns out the nominal A-plot about chasing the Acheron.

This serves, of course, to position the film as something of a slice-of-life drama about people who lived 198 years before its premiere, though what I'm always surprised to remember about Master and Commander, beneath the precision of its you-are-there sound mix and the evocatively fleshed-out character lives is that it's not overly concerned with realism. Not that I have any doubt, based solely on the copious onscreen evidence, that Wendy Stites's costumes and William Sandell's production design are thoroughly researched, or at least anxious to give the illusion of an immaculately worked-out reality. Generally, however, the visuals are detached from reality in a certain way. It's clearest in the scattered effects shots of CGI ships upon a CGI ocean, which are not photorealistic and frankly don't give the impression that photorealism was a goal: they resemble period-specific paintings more than 21st Century cinema. And having noticed that, the same motif pops up all over Russell Boyd's cinematography, with its narrow range of thickly saturated colors, and the kinds of compositions that get trotted out.

So where we end up with all of this is a film that traffics, somewhat, in History Come To Life, full of characters whose behavior and depth suggest that they do not regard themselves as historical, but simply normal, everyday people; at the same time, the resolute allergy to even the slightest anachronism in word or deed, and the painterly visuals going at skewed angles to anything truly realist in effect, keep the film at a firm remove from we moderns watching it. It ends up being a meditation on history as much as anything: a reckoning between us and our awareness of how life used to be, along with the similarities and differences between then and now. Mind you, this historical exercise is in the middle of a thoroughly engaging action-adventure, with a couple absolutely marvelous sea battle setpieces focused on the decks of ships rather than the spaces between ships. And that's part of the tremendous success of Master and Commander: it's so much fun to watch that the fact it's also quite ingenious and crafty can be surprisingly difficult to notice.