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MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD (article first published : 2003-12-14)

Shot in the same monstrously huge tank which accommodated the set of Titanic, this rousing and spectacular swashbuckler from Peter Weir, the talent behind Dead Poets Society, Witness and The Truman Show, is inspired by a series of 20 books by Patrick O'Brian.

These tell of the adventures, in the early 1900s, of a ship's captain and his friend, the vessel's doctor. And Weir has chosen well in selecting a long-haired, slightly podgy Russell Crowe as charismatic Jack Aubrey and Paul Bettany as surgeon Dr Stephen Maturin - two actors who were last teamed in A Beautiful Mind.

The year is 1805 and these characters are aboard the HMS Surprise, a large wood-and-sail vessel ordered to intercept and sink a French frigate, Acheron, during the Napoleonic War. Orders are to follow her as far as the coast of Brazil and prevent her from reaching the Pacific.

The seasoned Jack and his crew of men and boys are not prepared, however, for the sheer might of the more-modern French vessel and the HMS Surprise is forced to limp away into fog, badly in disrepair, after a surprise attack from the frigate.

But this is only the beginning. Tenacious beyond the call of duty and winning the support of his crew, their whispers of cursed seamen and phantom ships notwithstanding, Jack forges on, determined to repair his vessel, seek revenge and successfully complete his mission. Episodic cat-and-mouse battles follow, all of them brilliantly brought to life via sequences of frenzied cannon fire and the swishes of cutlasses - powerful sequences embellished with the sterling cinematography of Russell Boyd.

But amid all this showiness, Weir, who co-penned the script, takes pause to reflect on human elements, his story delving into themes of friendship and trust, fear and doubt, leadership and duty versus ego, friendship and superstition. Even the discovery of natural history.

The friendship between the flamboyant Jack and the studious, reserved surgeon, two opposites who attract, is well realised in scenes which have them sharing a love for chamber music by their playing together - Jack on violin, the doctor on cello - much to the annoyance of some crew members.

Both actors are excellent in their roles, Crowe avoiding a grandstanding performance to reveal a captain who, while a no-nonsense sort when at the helm, is not afraid to muck in or party with the crew, give credit where and when it is due, and fight, two cutlasses in hand, with the best of his men.

Bettany is also on fine form as friend and muse to Jack and his bravery is showcased in altogether different scenes. In one sequence, slipping in blood on the floor while the ship rocks, he struggles with primitive medical instruments to amputate a boy's arm. We also see him performing brain surgery on an old crew member strapped to a chair. And, even more gruesome, is a scene involving him having to perform an operation on himself.

Running a little long at two hours, the film features not a single woman in its cast and could perhaps be thought of as a drama best suited to males. But, made at a reported cost of some R1,2billion, it is a well-crafted swashbuckler and must receive special mention for an awesome storm scene that rates among the best seen on the big screen. It will come as no surprise finding the film as a contender for an Oscar or two early in the new year. Rating: 8/10. Billy Suter




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