Like David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (here we gooo), this is sweeping!, detailed!, scored!, shot!, interesting politically vis-à-vis imperialism! Long! A big grand old cinematic MO-VIE.
Yet the reason these films truly endure is because they are: romances. They are big grand old ROMANCES between the men at their center, whether you want to view the relationships erotically or platonically Romances is what they are, and it turns out that’s cinema, babey.
But let’s back up a moment.
Technically, the first Aubrey-Maturin narrative I experienced was this movie, released in November 2003, director Peter Weir (The Truman Show, Dead Poets Society, Picnic At Hanging Rock). But I had seen none of those at the time, nor did I see this movie until some point in early 2004, which I know because the only reason I saw it was because I had seen Lord of the Rings, and my fellow obsessive & best friend and I rented this entirely for Billy Boyd. Unfortunately, we could barely spy wee Billy, as we watched it on her brother’s ancient boxy television set with a screen that was at most about the size of a hardcover edition of The Far Side of the World, closed. As you might imagine, this scale, not to mention this screen resolution, was not conducive to really appreciating or even passably following heavily peopled nautical action.
So years and years later, when I began reading the first novel in Patrick O’Brian’s seafaring series, it really was for all intents and purposes my first meaningful experience with the material. Even though officially I’d “seen” the movie adaptation first, I hadn’t really seen anything. It would be the book forms I imprinted on, Master and Commander and later H.M.S. Surprise that impressed “Aubrey & Maturin” into my soul.
Which is why I do dock a star from the film simply due to Jack also but especially Stephen Maturin just not being REMOTELY unhinged enough.
Curiously, Paul Bettany, the actor who entered A Knight’s Tale stark naked, faintly irritated, and expounding on etymologies, could have absolutely played Book Stephen exactly as written. But it seems this project (script, Weir, etc) was after something different, because it sure was not a question of Bettany not having that energy setting. And as I recall Russell Crowe’s ‘The Art of Divorce’ auction, I think he too could have handedly played the Jack Aubrey who loves riches, can’t do math, and calls his particular friend Dr. Maturin “my plum.”
The Jack and Stephen of the movie aren’t entirely different creatures from their book selves, but come across as maybe just their calmer and more respectable reflections. These men are a bit salty, a bit quirky, but presentable to whomever you might want to present them to—Admirals, general movie audiences—and the same just cannot be said of the astonishing maniacs who grace O’Brian’s pages. It’s interesting, the sort of modern-friendly heroic polishing of Captain Aubrey and Doctor Maturin in their early 2000s film form is actually more like what I might have expected Patrick O’Brian to have done when he was writing his early 1800s characters for his 1970s readership, only he did not. He wrote a deeply romantic, deeply hilarious, very…just non-contemporary free-wheeling buddy comedy slash chaotic emotional drama hidden in a scrupulously detailed historical series of naval warfare in the Napoleonic era.
But while Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World could be called more subtle than its predecessors, maybe a bit more sophisticáte, oh it’s a still a high-key high seas romance, my friends. This is a ship battles movie, and such ship battles, such ships! and such storms! I have no idea how they filmed this but it was all so pitching and clashing and horribly tangible, made me so tense and anxious over injury, incredibly done action—but despite all of the ship dashing, the big Climactic Moment is 100% someone making a passionate decision about how much they value their best friend. The movie is genuinely hinged on this, anchored around this, pun intended! And it’s also a movie where so much of its considerable cinematic beauty is linked to said best friends playing duets together in the captain’s quarters. Gorgeous duets, I’ve listened to this so many times that YouTube was like here you might also enjoy these two clearly & adorably homaging the movie, and I did!
It’s also far from irrelevant that while Billy Boyd turns out to be in rather more of this than than my friend and I had managed to attend in 2004, and that he managed to get third billing, something that could have only happened in about a two year window in which this movie happened to fall, incredibly listed above who I’m about to mention: baby James D’Arcy is also in this! He plays Captain Aubrey’s first lieutenant and is quite sweet. Thank goodness I was watching this time on something larger than a dinner plate so could actually appreciate this—could finally, truly appreciate all this movie had to offer.