After an abrupt and violent encounter with a French warship inflicts severe damage upon his ship, a captain of the British Royal Navy begins a chase over two oceans to capture or destroy the enemy, though he must weigh his commitment to duty and ferocious pursuit of glory against the safety of his devoted crew, including the ship's thoughtful surgeon, his best friend.
This stupendously entertaining movie, adapted from two of the novels in Patrick O'Brian's 20-volume maritime adventure series, celebrates an idea of England that might have seemed a bit corny even in 1805, when the action takes place, but that is brought to vibrant life thanks to Russell Crowe's commanding performance and Peter Weir's thoroughgoing mastery. Mr. Crowe plays Jack Aubrey, captain of the H.M.S. Surprise, a British frigate doing battle with a mysterious French battle ship off the Coast of South America. The combat scenes are shot with economy and vigor, but the most thrilling parts of the movie take place between skirmishes, when the complex system of authority and deference that runs the Surprise — and the personality traits needed to keep it running — is at the center of attention. The film's theme is the nature of authority, and Aubrey functions as a kind of ideal CEO: charismatic, tactically astute and able to instill in his sailors a sense of discipline and respect. Paul Bettany plays the ship's surgeon, Aubrey's best friend and foil, and the tension between them — between reason and duty, between intellect and action — gives the movie some unexpected dramatic depth. — A. O. Scott
2003-11-14 | A. O. Scott | Read the New York Times Review of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World