Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (UK - BD RB)
Scott McKenzie checks out Peter Weir's seafarin' swashbucklin' blockbuster...
It is 1805 and Napoleon’s warships are deployed all over the world to engage the British navy. The HMS Surprise, captained by Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), is being stalked by the Acheron, a French frigate that is both larger and more powerful. Following initial defeat at the hands of the French, Aubrey doesn’t retreat to England and instead decides to remain at sea, repair the Surprise and engage the enemy once again…
Based on the writing of Patrick O’Brian, Master and Commander takes plot elements and characters from his novels and spins them into an original story. The elements you expect from a movie like this are all present and correct. Men being men on the high seas? Check. Everyone getting soaked through while shouting at each other? Check. Lots of cannon and sword action? Check. Peter Weir directs the action as if you’re right in there with the crew and uses swooping shots of the ship sparingly but for me, what sets Master and Commander apart from any other drama-on-the-high-seas movies you may care to mention is the historical details we’re offered.
Never leaving the action to head back to England for some plot development, we spend the whole movie with the crew of the Surprise and with a running time of well over two hours, we’re given the opportunity to not only get to know them but also find out what role each of them performs on the ship. We get to see the inner workings of a nineteenth century warship, which could be dry and boring, but we’re presented with them at the same time as Aubrey is barking orders so the viewer can either choose to absorb the details or not while the action unfolds. For example—have you ever wondered why nautical speed is measured in knots? Watch Master and Commander and you’ll find out.
Most interesting of all to me was the sequence where the Surprise stops off at the Galapagos Islands. Paul Bettany’s character makes a comment about taking the tortoises off the islands because they would be good food for the crew, and that is exactly right because by leaving the tortoises alive on the ship until it was dinner time, the meat would be fresher. I’ve just finished watching the BBC’s Galapagos series on DVD and the related historical facts thrown into this movie are pleasingly accurate, making that series a surprisingly good accompaniment to Master and Commander.
The long time spent on showing the inner workings of the ship also means that we get to spend plenty of screen time with the different characters that inhabit it. We get to see how they relate to each other and the way the lower-ranked shipmates deal with the better-educated officers. The performances of the whole cast do justice to the well-written source material and there are many highlights, but my pick of the bunch is Max Pirkis as the young Midshipman Blakeney. He delivers an adult performance in a role that the director could easily have just paid lip service to and treated him as a child instead.
The central themes of this movie are leadership and teamwork, focusing most of all on how a man like Captain Aubrey can bring a group of people of different classes and backgrounds together to make the HMS Surprise work like a well-oiled machine. The movie opens with a watchman’s struggle to make a decision and later touches on the difficulties he faces in establishing himself as a leader. This is counter-pointed by Aubrey’s strong leadership and split second decision-making and he even gives a short lecture on how to be a leader of men. If anyone reading this review teaches management courses, you should consider showing a few clips from this movie to your class to get your points across.
Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany in the central roles are as convincing as you would expect from these two experienced actors. Together again following their partnership in A Beautiful Mind, Bettany is the quiet and measured good cop to Crowe’s loud and brash bad cop. Together they effectively act as parents to everyone else on the ship and because the whole movie is set at sea, all the action in the movie involves one or both of them to some extent. The only drawback I could see to Master and Commander is the fact that it would be quite difficult to continue the series without delivering essentially the same movie again. Watching two master nautical tacticians blast the hell out of each other’s ships is exciting for one movie, but even though the relationships between the characters are compelling, I’m happy for the franchise to end with episode one.
Master and Commander is presented in 2.35:1 (1080p) and I’m happy to report that the movie looks very good. The detail is as sharp as any Blu-ray release I’ve seen so far, with much to admire in the waves of the ocean and the fog is particularly impressive, where I would have expected to find compression artefacts or grain in a lower-grade high definition disc. The colours are very strong as well, with black exactly the same shade as the widescreen borders. This is often where sub-par transfers get found out, but Master and Commander looks great and you should definitely pick it up if you’re looking to show off the potential of Blu-ray.
I’m pleased to say it’s a similar story with the audio quality. Master and Commander comes with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track and I have a word of warning for you—it’s loud! I had to turn down my surround system from its usual level as soon as the opening battle got going, but the detail in the soundtrack was amazing, with booming cannons and splintering wood coming through the rear speakers. It comes as no surprise that this movie picked up an Oscar for sound editing and the transfer here definitely does the soundtrack justice. Music is used sparingly, especially in the early scenes where the only music is provided by Crowe and Bettany’s characters but when the orchestra does kick in, it sounds just as good as anything else on the track.
After the high standards set by the video and audio quality I was hoping to get stuck into a decent set of extras, but I found myself faced with a rather odd collection of features. We start off with six deleted scenes, totalling twenty-four minutes, and if you add that on to the movie’s running time you’ll see why something had to be culled. The scenes here all go into more detail about the characters and life on the ship, although the scene leading up to the lashing may have added something extra to the movie. Without an audio commentary or ‘Making of’ to be found, trailers for Master and Commander, Live Free or Die Hard and Eragon round out the ‘normal’ set of extras before we head into oddball territory.
The trivia track is probably the most useful option available, which provides you with pop-up notes about the movie and the historical background. For example, did you know that Paul Bettany used to be a member of the Sea Cadets Corp when he was young and was one of the few actors who got seasick? Well, you do now. The pop-up map option allows you to track the geographical location of the on-screen action throughout the movie and the personal scene selections option allows you to bookmark your favourite scenes. The ‘Search Content’ option is an on-screen index of the whole movie that lets you to jump directly to the point in the movie where any particular subject or item is mentioned, from albatross all the way down the alphabet to weevil.
With a relatively inward-looking plot and almost no female presence at all, it’s not difficult to see why Master and Commander didn’t set the box office alight upon its theatrical release, but I have to say I thought it was an exciting and intelligent movie that’s definitely worthy of your time. The presentation here is excellent and if you’re a fan of the movie you shouldn’t let the strange set of extra features put you off picking up this disc.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.
Review by Scott McKenzie
Suitable only for persons of 12 years and over
Release Date: 28th April 2008
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1, Spanish DTS 5.1
Subtitles: English, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Spanish, Swedish
Extras: Deleted Scenes, Historical and Geographical Trivia Track, Search Content Function, Personal Scene Selections, Pop-Up Map, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Peter Weir
Cast: Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, James D'Arcy, Edward Woodall, Chris Larkin
Genre: Action and Adventure
Length: 138 minutes
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