Based on Patrick O'Brien's 20-book series the film revolves around the Capt. Aubrey and Dr. Maturin characters introduced in the first novel Master and Commander but employs the broad narrative outlined in the 10th installment The Far Side of the World. The film succeeds largely because like the books it attends to every historical detail--and there's no pussy-footin' around. Right from the start you're immersed in an intensely realistic battle in the waters off the coast of Brazil between the massive British frigate HMS Surprise led by Capt. "Lucky" Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) and the French Privateer Acheron one of Napoleon's best ships. Although the Surprise had been ordered to intercept the Acheron the French ship gets the better of the British and launches a "surprise" attack of its own appearing unexpectedly from a fog bank. Throughout the Acheron's merciless assault--as cannonballs rip through sail plank and bone--the highly decorated naval commander Aubrey bravely inspires his crew to battle on while below decks the Surprise's doctor and Aubrey's trusted confidante Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany) tends to the wounded in grisly and rudimentary fashion with rusted tools and limited resources. Maturin even performs skull surgery on a wounded sailor using a primitive metal plate as a patch. When the Surprise finally breaks away from the Acheron the British ship has sustained heavy damage and should head home for repairs but Aubrey isn't about to turn tail and run. Against Maturin's advice the headstrong captain decides to beat the Acheron at her own game: He will take her as a prize for England--at any cost--and the chase is on.
The perfectly cast Crowe could be looking at his fourth Academy Award nomination for his role as the strapping 19th-century naval warrior Aubrey even though the character doesn't have the usual Oscar-earning trappings such as deep poignant moments of self-reflection or twitchy mannerisms. The proud able-bodied Aubrey raises hell on the high seas but he's a fair leader who keeps his crew's loyalty even while sending them into almost impossible situations--usually because of his foolish pride a quality that gives him just enough fallibility to take the edge off his arrogance. To counteract Aubrey's brawn Bettany's Maturin provides the brains of the outfit; in addition to tending the wounded aboard ship as a naturalist he anticipates Charles Darwin's evolutionary theories when he discovers the Galapagos Islands a full 20 years before Darwin wrote about his findings there. Unfortunately his attempts to collect specimens from the islands are thwarted due to Aubrey's Acheron obsession--and Bettany amusingly shows Maturin's annoyance and generally does a wonderful job bringing this colorful character to life. The actors who starred together in the Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind complement each other like two sides of a coin; their rapport is immediate and genuine. Besides these two characters it's hard to invest any emotion in the rest of the Surprise's crew but there are a few you end up rooting for especially Lord Blakeney a 12-year-old midshipman played by newcomer Max Pirkis who embodies qualities from his two mentors--Aubrey and Maturin.
Director Peter Weir known for handling intimate films such as Dead Poets Society and Witness had his work cut out for him when he decided to make an epic like Master and Commander. First he conducted an extensive search for an authentic ship to be his Surprise finally finding it an American tall ship called the Rose a 20th-century replica of a 19th-century British Royal Naval ship. The filmmakers also built a second 60-ton Surprise from scratch for the more complicated battle scenes. In addition over 2 000 19th-century uniforms were made for the ships' crews. The real task for Weir though was keeping a two hour-plus movie about two ships chasing each other over open seas interesting and he succeeds. While there are a few lulls in the action they're generally brief and the action itself is engrossing. The wild trip around storm-whipped Cape Horn is a doozie as is the trek around the Galapagos--all while anticipating the final showdown between the warring frigates. Weir must somehow be possessed by the spirit of naval seamen everywhere because he's created an authentic and Oscar-worthy masterpiece.