DIRECTED BY Peter Weir STARRING Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, Billy Boyd Opened November 28, Cert 12A, 138 mins
It’s taken Peter Weir three years to bring novelist Patrick O’Brian’s seafaring heroes, Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr Stephen Maturin, to the screen. It’s a shame O’Brian died before he could see it, because Weir has made a scintillating action film with real intellectual ballast and a powerful emotional undertow. It skilfully evokes the Napoleonic-era comradeship between Russell Crowe’s Aubrey and naturalist and ship’s surgeon Maturin (Paul Bettany), but pulls off the even trickier feat of depicting the network of alliances and hierarchies vital to the functioning of the “wooden world” of Aubrey’s frigate, HMS Surprise.
O’Brian fanatics have grumbled about Weir’s decision to conflate two books into one story, but he reasoned that while Master And Commander introduced the main characters, The Far Side Of The World offered more cinematic scope. Shrewd thinking, since the tale of Aubrey’s pursuit of the French privateer, the Acheron, from the coast of Brazil to the Galapagos Islands is a journey on several levels. For Aubrey it’s his duty and an adventure, for his young officers it’s a daunting rite of passage, and for the lower ranks it’s a journey into the unknown where only God and the Cap’n can save them.
It can also be seen as a metaphorical voyage from superstition to enlightenment. Even as the analytical and forward-thinking Maturin is fascinated by the unknown species of the Galapagos in a foretaste of Darwin’s expedition 30 years later, the Surprise’s crew are gripped by a superstitious conviction that they’re doomed by a Jonah in their midst. Weir conveys the sense of a war spanning several oceans, while also suggesting a world poised on the fulcrum of scientific and philosophical change.
The depiction of life on ship is total and overwhelming, from wince-evoking battle scenes and a pulverising storm off Cape Horn to all-too-detailed nautical surgery. Weir found the perfect Aubrey in Russell Crowe, who handles the changes of pitch from rough bonhomie to the decisiveness of command with aplomb. Crowe genuinely looks as if he loves nothing better than shortening sail in a hurricane and shouting at the French. Bloody brilliant.