(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)
The Movie: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Where You Can Stream It: Hulu
The Pitch: The film opens with a piece of text that succinctly and evocatively sets the stage for the action to come. “April, 1805. Napoleon is master of Europe. Only the British fleet stands before him. Oceans are now battlefields.” Gotta love a great opening text. We’re only ten seconds in, and I’m already leaning forward in my seat.
Why It’s Essential Viewing: An exciting cat-and-mouse adventure, Master and Commander earned heaps of critical acclaim upon its release (including ten Academy Award nominations), but failed to perform well enough to justify a sequel. I would love to live in a parallel universe where this sparked several follow-up movies, but as it stands, we’re left with only this lone adaptation of Patrick O’Brian’s twenty-book novel series. But what a spectacular adaptation it is.
It’s easy to see why viewers flocked to the other big ship movie of 2003, the original Pirates of the Caribbean. As a Disney movie, that film is much more of a four-quadrant piece of popcorn entertainment than Master and Commander, which drops you onto the deck of the H.M.S. Surprise and fully immerses you in the experience of existing in that world. Characters employ naval terminology that the film has no interest in defining for its audience, trusting that we’re intelligent enough to understand the main plot points without holding our hand. It gives the movie an air of authenticity that would have been missing if the studio had forced director Peter Weir and his co-writers to dumb things down.
As Captain Jack Aubrey, Russell Crowe gives my favorite performance of his career: Aubrey is charismatic, funny, charming, and creative, but also laser-focused on his mission to capture or destroy one of Napoleon’s key ships. Paul Bettany plays Dr. Stephen Maturin, Aubrey’s best friend and his ship’s surgeon, who is also a naturalist hoping to stop at the Galapagos Islands and document his discoveries. The relationship between these two men is at the heart of the story; as much as the film is a thrilling psychological battle between Aubrey and the rival French captain (and their back-and-forth results in some of the best and most memorable scenes in the movie, including its perfect ending), it’s ultimately about the push-and-pull between Aubrey and Maturin and the clash between duty and discovery.
A rousing, beautifully shot, sea-faring yarn, Master and Commander may go down as one of the great “what if” scenarios of 21st century Hollywood. Take a look at Crowe’s five-movie run from 1999 to 2003: The Insider, Gladiator, Proof of Life, A Beautiful Mind, and Master and Commander. If this film had spawned three or four sequels, think about how different his career might have been. Would he have shown up in things like The Next Three Days, Les Miserables, Broken City, and Unhinged if he were busy out on the sea making more of these?
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