Russell Crowe wages war on water in this rousing, old-fashioned adventure, which stays afloat despite being almost as long and self-important as its title.
April, 1805. Pint-sized French fascist Napoleon is "master of Europe", but Britain is still scrapping on the high seas. The ship HMS Surprise is defending the Empire on "the far side of the world", chasing a French frigate along the coast of Brazil.
"CROWE DELIVERS ANOTHER FINE PERFORMANCE"
But then, the tables are turned. Outmanoeuvred and outgunned, Captain Jack Aubrey (Crowe) is up against it. While his best friend, surgeon Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), wants to scarper, 'Lucky' Jack is determined to fight on - and damn the consequences.
Crowe delivers another fine performance here, mastering an English accent (and the violin) as a gruff action-man with pretensions. The movie matches his character, as it's not quite happy to be a brain-in-the-bin swashbuckler. Oh no: Master And Commander craves importance.
"LESS GLADIATOR, MORE NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC"
So, instead of zipping through the slight story (chase ship: capture it), director/co-writer Peter Weir (The Truman Show) is bogged down by a 'character-building' stopover in the Galapagos Islands. It's less Gladiator, more National Geographic, as Maturin mooches around oohing over nature like a good-looking Charles Darwin.
Sandwiching this snooze, though, is some great aquatic action. Filmed in the same giant tank as Titanic, the sea-set sequences are utterly convincing; both exciting and spectacular.
It is a triumph technically: a film for which the words 'well' and 'crafted' were invented. But while it's easy to admire, it's hard to adore. Like a piece of oak furniture: brilliantly made, beautiful to look at, and rather hard on the backside.