Saturday, July 27, 2013

Master and Commander re-viewed

We watched Master and Commander again last night; we first saw it in 2004, a year after it was released.  I wrote about it then, and pretty much what I said then still applies.

It’s a great film in terms of putting the material across, the acting is top notch from the little cabin boys to the old sea dog. Crowe is better than he is in Gladiator, I think, where he was expected to be just a little lower than a god. And Paul Bettany, who plays his good friend, the ship's doctor, (he appeared with him in A Beautiful Mind, I later realised) is very good.  There’s a wonderful sense of camaraderie presented throughout; perhaps it’s a bit too positive (in spite of the section where one of the midshipmen kills himself because the lower crew have begun to see him as a Jonah) but it means that we get a great deal of satisfaction in seeing a movie in which only men appear, and appear without fighting with each other -  they fight the French instead!  The French, however, aren't seen until the last great battle at the end; until then they're nothing more than an impersonal, somewhat ghostly ship.
Peter Weir does a great job of building up the personnel on board, bit by bit, showing us different characters often only in glimpses at first, and then gradually filling in the outlines. The characters have more than minor moments, and many of them are well delineated. The sheer complexity of life on board a small ship with 170 or so other people is presented well; we don’t get a full impression of its less-pleasant aspects, since we see more of the upper-class side than the lower-class, but enough of that is presented to keep us in mind of the fact that there is a lower-class. Weir again and again tosses in a shot that relates to the main action but isn’t explained; it has to speak for itself, and it does. In some of the more active sections we have dozens of these kind of shots that just build up the whole picture, even though the main action may be going on only in one spot. And the kids in it are good too: particularly the one who loses his arm early in the piece (Max Pirkis in his first screen role). The camera often focuses in on a face, and some of the shots are like portrait paintings of the period for a moment.  The scenes between Crowe and Bettany are very well done, and so are the supper scenes in the captain’s ‘great’ cabin.   Then there’s the music: a judicious mix of real 18th century pieces and pseudo material, nearly all of it strings.  (The captain and the doctor play duets on board, between a cello and a violin.) 
I'd forgotten quite a bit of the story, so it was almost like watching a new movie.  Technically, it's superb, with huge attention to detail.  The direction is sharp - as is the editing - and the script, which seemed when I first saw it to have a bit of a lull in the middle, on second viewing hangs together exceptionally well, considering the number of characters and our need to get to know them in some way or other.  Crowe seems thoroughly at home in the role, never missing a beat whether as the full-scale leader driven to chase the French ship to roughest seas in the world, or as the generous-hearted Captain who knows every one of his men and can identify with them, or the man willing to be criticised by his friend.
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