It would be very hard for any director to follow The Truman Show, even if that director was Peter Weir. Having proved himself to be adept with period dramas (Dead Poets' Society), romantic comedies (Green Card) and religious thrillers (Witness), Weir sets his sights in Master and Commander on the good old-fashioned historical epic. Drawing on his great work in Gallipoli, his adaptation of Patrick O'Brian's series of novels is a very fine effort, combining character drama and frenetic action in an excellent balance. It isn't perfect, nor is it Weir's finest work, but it still comes with a hearty recommendation.
Although its historical setting and level of resulting pomp may tempt comparisons with Barry Lyndon and Mutiny on the Bounty, Master and Commander is closest in its themes and orchestration to Ridley Scott's Gladiator. Both films are about duty and honour, and how these values often come into conflict with our humanity and capacity for friendship. Both films also benefit from the presence of Russell Crowe, although there is a key difference in character. Where Maximus is driven only to serve, and hence makes a reluctant hero, Jack Aubrey is a born leader who revels in both the rough glamour of naval life and the strict discipline associated with the uniform.
At the centre of Master and Commander is a discussion on the nature and function of leadership, epitomised by the difficult friendship of Captain Aubrey and Dr. Steven Maturin, played by Paul Bettany. Their conversations scattered throughout the film are the high points of the story, helping to explain Aubrey's decisions while never justifying him unconditionally. While Aubrey is portrayed as a sympathetic character and a lovable rogue, he is not a perfect hero who commands universal adoration. Even Nelson's character is questioned during an early scene, with one officer commenting that he was not so much a great sailor as a great leader.
Bettany's character is the voice of calm and humanistic reason, someone who attempts to counter Aubrey's potentially lethal cocktail of duty and pride. He delivers great lines about how leaders become so quickly corrupted, and how scientific progress can be neglected in the pursuit of fruitless war -- to which Aubrey can only shout, "We have no time for your damned hobbies Sir!". Their friendship grows deeper and more complex as the film rolls on, so that we forgive them even when they are badly miming their instruments in the final scene.
The distant and claustrophobic feel of the H.M.S. Surprise is the perfect means to explore the ways in which men cope with the horrors of war. Richard Roeper was right on the money when he compared the Acheron to the shark in Jaws: in both cases the nature of the monster is always suggested or rumoured rather than shown or explained, and the terror that results from withholding it increases our involvement in the story. The men respond to the Acheron and the subsequent calamities which befall the Surprise in a variety of interesting ways. Some trust stoically in the Captain, while others grumble and look to Hollom as a scapegoat.
As with The Truman Show, the great success of Master and Commander is that it is able to explore all these complex ideas and relationships whilst all the time remaining light-hearted and enjoyable. It's a classic case of what Weir does best, combining intense and intelligent character drama with a warm and welcoming sense of humour.
On the one hand, we have the discussions surrounding Hollom, who is branded 'the Jonah' by the crew and blamed for the lack of rain. The pressure on Hollom becomes so great that he believes himself to be cursed, and ultimately takes his own life to escape the pain. On the other hand, we have the 'two weevils' sequence, which is worth the price of admission alone. Aubrey plays a witty joke on Maturin and we find ourselves chuckling with as much mirth as the drunken sailors. The fact that we laugh as much as them shows that Weir has completely immersed us in the period, so that something we would normally consider poor becomes the funniest thing in the world.
On top of its substance, the film is visually ravishing. Russell Boyd's cinematography is so great that you can almost feel the salt running over your skin as the waves smash against the deck. On several occasions the camera lingers on an object, like the scale model of the Acheron or the doctor's notebook, and captures them in exquisite detail like a still life. The intimate dining room scenes with the open candles are like a brighter, more mirth-ridden version of Barry Lyndon, and the interior scenes in general are reminiscent of the work of Peter Greenaway, in their composition and artful nature.
Weir is a great director when it comes to crowd sequences, really knowing how to construct shots involving dozens of people in which every single character on screen appears to be doing something important and self-motivated. The scenes with the native boats, or any shots of the whole deck, look meticulously planned and yet very organic, with no-one just idly wandering into shot. The battle scenes are frenetic and tense, with the close camerawork putting us on deck with the characters and Richard King's sound effects editing brilliantly replicating the atmosphere of gunfire.
For all these plus points, there are a couple of troubling weaknesses. The first is that, despite being shorter than both Gladiator and The Return of the King, the film is not as disciplined as one might expect. Weir's direction of individual scenes is solid and meticulous, but both the very beginning and very ending of the film feel rather loose. Compared to The Truman Show, in which every single shot felt the perfect length and full of meaning, little sections in this do run on for too long, such as the extent of the crew's conversations about 'the Jonah'.
Like several other book-to-film adaptations, it feels like a lot of information has been compressed into one film. This manages to do a better job than Brideshead Revisited or some of the Harry Potter films, since it lifts chapters from several of O'Brian's novels. But the result of this is not just that purists may be offended, but that the ending is rather weak and open. It's as though Weir and his producers were unsure whether or not they wanted this to have a sequel (which Weir eventually ruled out in 2005 due to the film's lower-than-expected takings).
Despite these little problems, you can't really fault Master and Commander as either a romping action film or a faithfully complex adaptation of the much-loved books. It remains focussed on its characters throughout, is meticulously written and shot, and is a very accessible film which can be enjoyed whatever one's mood. The small flaws are generally forgivable in light of its obvious strengths, coupled with fine supporting performances by David Threlfall and Billy Boyd. It's not up there with The Truman Show, but it's still a solid effort, which bodes well for Weir's upcoming return.