***** Peter Weir's Master and Commander is a thrilling, sweeping, visually stunning Napoleonic War adventure set on the high seas.
It's a beautiful film, full of blood, heart, intelligence and wit. It may very well turn out to be the best picture of the year, but it is already the best historical epic since Last of the Mohicans, and the best movie, under sail, ever made.
Freely adapted from the 20-novel Patrick O'Brian series about a Royal Navy captain, Jack Aubrey, and his spy-naturalist-physician friend, Stephen Maturin, the film follows the Royal Navy frigate HMS Surprise on a round-the-world chase after a huge and deadly French privateer.
They battle off Brazil.
They struggle around Cape Horn.
They duel off the Galapagos.
And as they do, we are immersed in the cramped, difficult and downright deadly business of sailing a man-of-war in the 19th century.
We see, through the eyes of the landlubberly amateur naturalist Maturin, a trifle underplayed by Paul Bettany, the wonders of the Galapagos half a century before Darwin. That this amazing visit -- the first time a feature film has been shot in those unique isles -- is but an interlude in the broader sweep of the film says something of the sheer scale of Master and Commander.
What Weir and his co-adapter John Collee have done is absorb O'Brian's novels, which are the life's journey of a seaman and a scientist, and pick up the tale at its most exciting juncture. In 1805, the future of Europe hung in the balance. After many defeats on land, only the Royal Navy was keeping Napoleon at bay.
Russell Crowe stars as Capt. "Lucky" Jack Aubrey, a bluff, hard-drinking, hard-driving gambler of a warrior with one eye on his duty and the other on the main chance, "the prize," the glory and riches of capturing an enemy vessel. Fans of the novels may quibble that Crowe's Aubrey isn't O'Brian's simple, socially inept sailor at home only in battle. But Crowe wears the role as if he were born to it. He dominates the frame the way John Wayne did, the way Charlton Heston thought he did.
"Heroic" is the only way to describe this performance. As amazing as the former Gladiator is in a fight, Crowe is never better than in his many scenes with the ship's youngest crew members -- the vessel's "squeakers," young powder monkeys and midshipmen.
Bettany, Crowe's Beautiful Mind castmate, is an intriguing choice for Maturin. The novels suggest a shorter, plainer-looking, brooding, drug-abusing man so totally out of his depth on a ship that he is forever falling overboard. The crew, at times, dotes on the great doctor and scientist as if he were retarded. Weir has rubbed off the comical, the Irish and the laudanum- and coca-abusing edges.
But Bettany is perfectly right in one important way: He and Crowe don't have to fake knowing each other for years. From their arguments over the Navy's tyrannical discipline and its "there isn't a moment to lose" hurry, skipping by the natural wonders of the world, to their perhaps over-perfect violin and cello duets in the cabin after the evening's often boisterous and drunken dinners, they have history.
There's humor and much of the wondrous texture of the novels.
"To our wives and sweet- hearts . . . may they never meet."
Sea chanteys are sung, seamanship is debated and displayed, and life and death decisions grimly reached in moments of truth.
The battles are ferocious and visceral. This isn't a Pirates of the Caribbean lark. You will feel the recoil of the cannons, duck the whizzing cannonballs and splinters.
There's no Hollywood romance, no women in the story at all. But Weir's gutsiest decision was not to dumb this thing down to give the audience an easy entrée to the story. Follow along, let the visuals and emotions and pacing sweep you up. And if need be, get a fan of the books, or of A&E's fine Horatio Hornblower miniseries, to fill you in on the rest.
Many of the films pitched as "epics" in recent years simply haven't had the look. The cinematography and editing that characterized Lawrence of Arabia and the other films of David Lean has seemed a dead art. Who has the time to wait for that perfect shot anymore, especially on a $135 million movie? However sweeping and satisfying the Lord of the Rings films or Braveheart and Gladiator have been, however "big" Titanic was, none of those films have looked, frame by frame, like art. Master and Commander does.
The special effects don't reveal themselves as such. Cinematographer Russell Boyd, who hasn't done work this gorgeous since 1981's Gallipoli, and the editors and designers give every shot a burnished hue. A seaman's life was this gray and brown world of wood and water and canvas and occasionally blood, and the production team's attention to this restricted color palette is as gutsy as Weir's decision to join the story mid-chase.
Like The Lord of the Rings, Master and Commander rides into theaters on a wave of expectations based on the very popular novels it comes from. Fellow fans of the novels, you won't be disappointed. And for those of you who haven't discovered what are widely acclaimed as the best historical novels ever written, this great film is just a glorious hint of what you've been missing.
Roger Moore can be reached at Rmoore@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5369.