Like a frigate adrift in the doldrums, “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” floats aimlessly, its narrative mainmast shattered by the long guns of an indulgent screenplay. If any of the words in the previous sentence confused you, steer clear of this latest Russell Crowe film, because in order to enjoy this movie, you’d need to have a fantastic hard-on for nautical history, naval warfare, Russell Crowe or, preferably, all three.
Now, just to get this out of the way, I hate Russell Crowe. I hate him like some people hate cancer, Nazis or TV weathermen. And he’s the best part of this movie. As Captain “Lucky Jack” Aubrey, Crowe leads the crew of the HMS Surprise around the coast of South America, fanatically pursuing a French privateer, against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars. Got that? Now add roughly 42 subplots, all carried out to the bitter end, and an uncountable number of ridiculously long establishing shots of the ship, and you have the bloated, static opus of writer-director Peter Weir (“Dead Poets Society”).
The acting isn’t the problem. Paul Bettany (“A Beautiful Mind”) is delightful, Russell Crowe is no more of a ham-fisted hack than usual and the rest of the ensemble is convincingly British. The problem here is that there are so many story lines running all at once that you just stop caring. What happened? Was the editor drunk? It’s as though in writing the screenplay Weir wanted to include every possible facet of the Patrick O’Brien novels upon which the movie is based. Though it’s meant as a loving tribute, the script feels forced and cluttered. If I were Weir, I’d be worried about O’Brien coming back from the dead to kick my ass.
Rarely is there a movie with such amazing art direction and such terrible camera work. It’s just awful. The long shots, meant to inspire, are insipid, and the action sequences are clumsy. It’s “Pearl Harbor” all over again.
There’s a decent story at the heart of all this – a tale of obsession and decay and the pride of the British Empire, back when being British meant something. It could have been a wonderful take on the “Moby Dick” motif, with solid acting and gorgeous set design, costumes and art direction. Instead, “Master and Commander” is colossal shipwreck.