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Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Reviewed by Helen Meservey

It wouldn't be your standard holiday cruise, but for a satisfying getaway this season, try a turn aboard the H.M.S. Surprise.

The Surprise is an English naval warship at the center of Australian director Peter Weir's eminently entertaining Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, still playing in theaters around Santa Cruz County.

Old fashioned in almost every sense of the word, Master and Commander is a fully engaging tour on the Surprise as it sails around Cape Horn and the coast of Brazil in the early years of the 19th century, alternately fleeing and pursuing an enemy French frigate of greater speed, size, and strength. Perhaps the grandest surprise of all, Master and Commander delivers drama, action, heroics, and first-class star power via Russell Crowe, all for a PG-13 rating and a visit to an era of technology that by now feels like a galaxy far, far away.
The only way this seafaring epic, based on the hugely popular and historically accurate seafaring adventure novels by the late Patrick O'Brian, is not old fashioned is in the ultimately invisible technologies that so exquisitely establish a sense of time and place time and place when ships were sunk with canon balls and surveillance was conducted on quarterdeck with pocket telescopes.

From the creaking of wooden masts as they sway in the South Atlantic wind to the booming of cannons as they fire toward an enemy hull, Master and Commander feels so complete in its commitment to set and setting that the pleasure of it overtakes the fact that this a story of war. Even a confirmed landlubber who wouldnít know a mainsail from a bed sheet could enjoy this film.

Setting aside the entertaining coincidence that the bad guys are French and the good guys are English, director Weir leaves the complexities of modern warfare to those waging it and takes us back to the year 1805, before Darwin, before doctors scrubbed for surgery, and before those corny old jokes had gone corny. Royal Navy Captain "Lucky Jack" Aubrey, played by Crowe, leads a faithful crew through seas stormy and still, baking hot and freezing cold, bound by duty and perhaps a little pride to capture the superior French vessel and thwart Napoleon's advance on Great Britain.
His only sort-of foil is the ship's doctor, Stephen Maturin, who is also his excellent friend. Played by Paul Bettany, who starred as Crowe's imaginary friend in A Beautiful Mind, Dr. Maturin is afforded a nice little subplot as a naturalist who yearns to drop hook and do a little exploring in the Galapagos.

In lesser hands, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World could have been another highly stylized bloodletting production that made big noise and ultimately went nowhere. This film was in good hands. Crowe is a standout as the manly and affable hero, but final accolades must go to filmmaker Weir, who can add this film to the happy side of his oeuvre, along with The Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show, and The Year of Living Dangerously.
Except for a brief exchange between the captain and his friend, Master and Commander does not burden itself with moralistic quandary about good and evil. Jack is the captain, he's the man, and you know he's going to come out on top. Even with that guarantee, Master and Commander is a great escape and a good story. I'd say it's one of the surest bets you can take in these uncertain times.

For KUSP, this is Helen Meservey.