When it comes to historical or period films, there seem to be two main approaches taken by filmmakers. The most common one is to make essentially a modern film set in period costumes. A classic example of this type of film is Titanic, which was not making any real attempt to tell the historical story of the Titanic but rather was telling a fairly contemporary teenage love story set on the Titanic. You could have easily changed the costumes and the characters would fit right into a modern film.
Now, this is not always a bad approach, and can sometimes yield some fantastic results. (Amadeus being a case in point.) But no one is convinced that “this is exactly what it was like.”
Which brings me to the second school of historical films. Much rarer are films that actually attempt to recreate, not just in the visual look of the film, but in the entire experience, the actual reality of what it might have been like to be in that time period.
This is a much harder trick to pull off. Not only do you have to get the costumes and sets completely right, but the script writer has a very tough job as well. Number one, the writer has to create characters that think like characters back in the time did. Number two, the characters then have to talk like characters back in the time did. Number three, despite the fact that these characters have different motivations, actions and speech patterns than us, a modern audience still needs to be able to connect with them.
So, as you can imagine, generally the first option for historical films is preferred. But every now and again a surprise slips through. Master and Commander is one such surprise. For starters, it’s based on the famous series of books by Patrick O’Brian, which detail the adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey, English naval captain, and his best friend, Dr Joseph Maturin, Irish doctor. Now, having read one of these books, I can tell you that O’Brian was making no attempt at all to update his characters. In fact, the first three chapters of the first book in the series (also called Master and Commander, but not the book that this movie was based on) are some of the toughest fiction I’ve ever read, because the dialogue was old and stilted, and the nautical terms came thick and fast, with no real attempt made to translate them for the layperson.
However, if you stuck with it, you eventually worked out what things were what, and gradually the story started to work its magic. Part of the charm of the original series also was the characterisation of Aubrey and Maturin. Aubrey is a brilliant sea commander and absolutely unstoppable while on the chase. But as far as people go, he has absolutely no real grasp of tact or how society works at all. Thus, outside of his naval duties, he’s always getting into trouble from one person or another. Maturin, by contrast, is wiley and smart when it comes to people, but clueless about the ways of boats and the navy. And, of course, a nice touch, the two men like playing music together – Maturin on cello and Aubrey on violin.
Now, when it comes to Weir’s film itself, they’ve almost got it right. The costumes and sets are spot on, their portrayal of all the little details on the ships are straight out of O’Brian’s books, and the dialogue also sounds very convincing (however, it’s a little more clear in the screen version what’s going on where). With excellent camerawork and sound design, it’s a very immersive experience.
Also, fans of action films should be warned that there’s really only one fight scene in this movie. The story follows Aubrey’s ship, the Surprise, as they trail after the French ship Acheron, and for an hour and a half, that’s more or less what they do – follow the French ship, with the occasional long-range cannon shot fired. Only in the last half hour do they catch up for the climactic final battle. For lovers of this film, there is enough detail and goings-on to sustain interest, but if you want to see guns blazing regularly, you might be better off sticking to Pirates of the Caribbean, I think.
The only negative I have about the film is the characterisations of Aubrey and Maturin. Jack (perhaps because they have Russell Crowe in the role) has been made a little bit more “perfect” in this film, with less of the amusing personality flaws that could make him swing from the heroic sea captain to confused lunkhead very quickly. As a consequence, this means that Maturin is no longer the perfect offset to Jack and instead becomes more of an argumentative character – criticising when Jack does something harsh or complaining when he doesn’t get dropped off at the Galapagos Islands in the middle of the chase so that he can study animals. Also, by casting Paul Bettany in the role, they dropped his age by about 40 years, which also takes away some of the crustiness that the original character had.
But these are minor shortcomings. All in all, this is a top-notch war film and considering that, up until Pirates came out, nobody was really making any movies about the old naval sea battles, it’s also one of only a handful of recent films on this topic. So 4 1/2 out of 5.