1805, and the HMS Surprise, a British frigate captained by Jack Aubrey, is charged with making sure that the Napoleonic Wars do not spread into exotic waters.
Weir, inspired by the obsessively detailed prose of author Patrick O' Brian, has employed Fox's considerable bounty and even greater human effort in the pursuit of total realism. This is not simply a matter of a retrofitted period vessel or some CG waves. In the best possible sense, Master And Commander is all at sea. Save for a brief sojourn on the alien landscapes of the Galapagos Islands, the picture does not touch ground. The sense of isolation that Weir has explored in various forms throughout his distinguished career - think of Truman's town in a bubble or the single sex school parties of Dead Poet's Society and Picnic At Hanging Rock - finds perhaps its fullest expression here, an entire floating world with not a woman to be found for a thousand miles.
And to master this miniature city, Weir has engaged the services of the most commanding actor in Hollywood: Russell Crowe. O'Brian's first choice for Captain Jack was apparently Charlton Heston, and you would have to cast your net that far back to find an actor who could challenge Crowe in this kind of form. An even then, Heston was never this nuanced, rarely this contained. Authenticity is therefore assured from the moment Crowe steps on deck; but during the double-checking of every little item, the filmmakers seem to have neglected to check if the maximum amount of fun had been packed into the capacious hold. The first attack on the HMS Surprise is arguably the most exhilarating twenty minutes of 2003. Compared to the insubstantial illusions of CGI, the crack and splinter of wood torn apart by metal is enormously satisfying. Thereafter, however, the movie drifts a bit with Jack's obsession with besting The Archeron precipitating a rather straightforward chase.
The soggy middle section plays like a National Geographic travelogue: boat when cold, boat when hot, boat when wet again. The final sortie does scoop up all the plot strands, but the expected reversals and betrayals that might have raised the dramatic stakes or deepened the emotional ones simply do not come.
This largely linear journey is not without rough waters. The character of Maturin (a colourful yet grounded Bettany) is on board to ask stupid questions on our behalf but, in general, precious little quarter is given to land-lubbers, with authentic dialogue launched into the wind and forever lost. Imagine watching a period Robert Altman drama in a storm, and you can grasp the nature of the problem.
If it's not quite fun enough, Master And Commander is perhaps not quite rich enough either. Crowe's Jack is a complex soul, but unless you're a commissioned officer in the Royal Navy, his situation simply does not speak to the modern condition. While Crowe's indelible Maximus was father to a murdered son who would have his revenge in this life or the next, Captain Jack's motivation remains remote, an Ahab whose enemy is given no more shading than your average white whale.
Oak solid and unsinkable, Master And Commander is old-fashioned entertainment crafted with considerable care; but compared to Pirates Of The Caribbean's pleasure cruise, this voyage is choppy and difficult without ever troubling deeper waters.