Saturday, 27 February 2016

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)

"The lesser of two weevils!"

It's been far too long since I read Patrick O'Brian's superlative tales of Captain Jack Aubrey and his particular friend Dr. Stephen Maturin, and watching this unexpectedly excellent film adaptation has reminded me that I really need to start reading all twenty(!) novels all over again. It's a magnificent series of books, with both intense psychological depth for the extraordinarily well-rounded characters and a dizzyingly perfect evocation of time and place. A crude analogy would be Hornblower as written by Jane Austen, but the novels are much more than that. The language alone I can just get drunk on. Patrick O'Brian was a man of the Regency out of his time.

I've seen the film before, but it's only now, having read all of the novels rather than just the first few, that I can truly appreciate its excellent. It's odd to base the film around The Far Side of the World, one of the later novels, but that's a suitably representative plot of Jack captaining the Surprise in pursuit of a French privateer. Naturally this isn't really an adaptation of a specific novel; a franchise of twenty films was clearly not going to happen so they did the sensible thing and made a greatest hits album. Hence we see Maturin doing his famous bit of surgery with the coin, Maturin directing his own operation, Jack's anecdote about Nelson and the above joke from Jack. I'm surprised we don't get Stephen's "cur-tailed" joke which Jack brings up every bloody novel but you can't have everything! But the approach works; the plot, cobbled together from some of the best set pieces from the novels, makes for a gripping film.

I'm not generally a huge fan of Russell Crowe but he was seemingly born to play Jack, and David Threlfall deserves particular praise as the perfect Preserved Killick. Paul Bettany, though, seems to lack charisma somewhat, although I can see little actually wrong with his performance. But this is nevertheless a superb adaptation which has certainly succeeded in directing me back to the novels.

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