The Rear-View Mirror: Master and Commander (2003)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

My enjoyment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe notwithstanding, I’m not the kind of moviegoer who regularly thinks, “When are they doing the sequel?” A film first and foremost has to be a world unto itself: before you can start to think about creating a universe, tell a good story. World building is fine, but as far as I’m concerned a movie is best served by being self-contained.

Master and Commander

In spite of this, I am still dismayed that there was never a sequel to Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. It’s a handsome film to look at and Russell Crowe (as Captain Jack Aubrey) and Paul Bettany (as ship doctor Stephen Maturin) make for an engaging pair of protagonists – but more than that, it’s the kind of film that gives you a glimpse of an exciting world and makes you wish you could spend more time there. Some of that is certainly the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brien, by all accounts exceedingly well-crafted novels of naval derring-do during the Napoleonic Wars, but Weir’s adaptation is an example of craftsmanship so solid, it becomes an art in its own right. In his film, everyday life on board the HMS Surprise is depicted in great, fascinating detail. Naval combat is thrilling and frightening in its intensity. There are various scenes of early 19th century military surgery that are stomach-churning and ingenious in equal measure. More importantly, though, Weir never loses track of the human stories, both grand and small, that make his film engaging.

Peter Weir’s oeuvre makes it difficult to nail down the director: how can you make sense of a career that includes films as different as Picnic at Hanging Rock, Witness and The Truman Show? And would is that man the best candidate for a period drama largely set aboard a seafaring vessel? But based on the results, I wish Weir had been given a second crack at the Aubrey-Maturin books, because Master and Commander is unfairly forgotten, and the director’s adaptation was masterly. I suspect I’m not the only one who yearns to smell that salty sea air and hear the shattering crack of the cannons again.

Master and Commander

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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