Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

It was with both some excitement and nervousness that my wife and I went to see the movie “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” yesterday.

Over the last few years I’ve worked my way through about half of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels, on which this movie is based. I’ll make it through all of them eventually. Most O’Brian fans I’ve met think every one of the series of his books is of such high literary quality that they all deserve Pulitzers. Generally I’ve found every other book to be a huge hit, and the other one usually leaves me yawning. The less than stellar books often deal with a morass of tangled political problems in obscure regions of the world 200 years ago. In other books, such as the very first book, the obscure nautical terminology gets so high and deep that even someone immersed in the Navy would have a hard time figuring out what O’Brian is talking about. O’Brian liked to show off his microscopic detailed understanding of the early 19th century. If you are into obscure details about 200 year old sailing ships then you will welcome the detail. If not you will find the books dense and at times irritating: too much information!

On the other hand when O’Brian is good he is really, really good. Of those I’ve read the one that really knocked my socks off was book six, “Desolation Island”. O’Brian fans would say you have to read them all in sequence to appreciate them. I would say if you have to pick one of the books to take for a spin this is the one to pick up. It packs in one book just about everything you could want in a naval story: intrigue, romance, ferocious battles at sea against high odds, visits to obscure islands in the middle of nowhere, spying and all those little but human details that add so much depth to a story. This one, for example, has to do with a prisoner ship that Captain Jack Aubrey has to sail to Australia. Disease breaks out shortly after the ship sets sail. The pacing is perfect and the novel becomes almost impossible to put down.

With books like this it is easier to forgive O’Brian’s frequent lapses into obscure naval and political events, or his often long and rambling sentences, or chapters the length of some novellas, or the often meandering way he writes when it often seems he is saying nothing at all. When I read him I often wish he had worked from a clear outline.

O’Brian created perhaps the most compelling character ever created. No I’m not talking about “Lucky” Jack Aubrey, the captain. Aubrey often comes across in the book as a fairly shallow fellow. It is the surgeon, Dr. Stephen Maturin, who has me buying and reading the next book. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a character in any novel or set of novels with his depth. He is one of the most complex characters ever created. He is at once a brilliant surgeon living a hundred years ahead of his time, a counter spy, Irish, a papist, a scientist, an entomologist, a humanitarian, and a man deeply caught up in the passions of the human experience.

So I had trepidations about seeing the movie. Could it live up to the books?

And the answer is no. However, the movie does fairly well capture the essence of the books without necessarily putting it into context. Russell Crowe portrays Jack Aubrey more like Patrick Stewart portrays Captain Jean Luc Picard. In fact, I kept thinking Patrick Stewart could have done a better job with the part, except perhaps he is too old for it. This Captain Aubrey is some sort of weird synthesis between Captains James T. Kirk and Jean Luc Picard. Almost wholly missing from Crowe’s portrayal of Aubrey is Aubrey’s wild and childish side. In a port Aubrey could be a hellion. But we don’t see him in port.

Paul Bettany is perfectly cast as Dr. Stephen Maturin. It is Maturin, not Aubrey, who is the real heart and soul of the books. Bettany does Maturin just right. Admittedly for a novice it can be a bit hard to understand why he has this fascination for insects, birds and mammals. My wife thought it was almost ludicrous when the good doctor chooses to operate on himself, but those who have read the books know this is par for the course. Maturin is a Renaissance man without a streak of hubris.

As for the rest of the movie, it is likely that 19th century naval life has never been captured so convincingly. The chase and battles with the French ship Acheron are first rate and capture the grit and terror of engagements at sea in an unforgettable manner. I knew Peter Weir, one of my favorite directors (“Dead Poets Society”) would have the right stuff. It is hard to believe that naval ships in that time were populated largely by teenagers and young adults. This story is true to the facts. Near the end of the movie Aubrey leaves one of his lieutenants in command of the ship while they board the Acheron. His voice hasn’t even quite broken.

My understanding is that the producers are hoping to produce many sequels. I hope they succeed so the characters can be fleshed out in more detail on film. There is nothing in this movie, for example, that hints at Maturin’s work in counter intelligence. Nor do we have any glimpse of Maturin or Aubrey’s deep passions for women, or how they wrestle with the loves of their lives: Diana in Maturin’s case, and Aubrey’s frigid wife Sophie in the other. Based on this movie I will definitely see the sequels. Moviegoers at least got a taste of Aubrey and Maturin. Now they deserve the whole enchilada.

The critics were right in that Russell Crowe does tend to chew up the scenery. But Paul Bettany manages to shine in spite of the spotlight on Crowe. These two, who worked together recently in the movie “A Beautiful Mind”, are perhaps a pair that will work well together in many future movies.

So now that I’ve had my Aubrey/Maturin film fix I can look forward with even greater anticipation to the release of “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” on December 17th. Only 31 days to go — not that I’m counting.

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