Unbeknownst to many, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is actually the tenth book in a series of 20 or so that focus on the central character of "Lucky" Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), a Captain in the British Navy at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, and his friend and ship's surgeon Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany). While the story is an action adventure, one that you could probably drop Errol Flynn himself into, there is more to the story, and the film spends as much time investigating the relationship between Aubrey and Maturin as it does being a tale about the nature of war and the men who fight them.
Set in 1805, the story opens on the high seas - although they are more like the low seas - with Aubrey's man-of-war, the Surprise blanketed by fog on a very flat sea off the north coast of Brazil. Their mission is to find a French ship, the Acheron, with orders to "Sink, burn or take her a prize." What Aubrey doesn’t expect is a surprise attack from out of the fog by this bigger, faster and better-armed adversary. Taking a major hit, the Surprise manages to limp out of sight to lick her wounds and, much to everyone's amazement, undertake repairs at sea for a second shot at the Acheron.
It is Aubrey's decision not to head for old Blighty that allows us the first glimpse of the relationship between the Captain and the ship's surgeon. As with most relationships between men of strong mind and heart, the two are poles apart in many respects, yet they share a long and involved history, one that allows the surgeon limited scope of addressing his Captain in the manner that he would wish. Aubrey is very much a military man of the day, with an unshakable belief in following orders and doing duty by his country, while Maturin, is almost a modern 20th century-styled man with an interest in science and the humanities. This characteristic is both a help and a hindrance in the British Navy in 1805.
When the Acheron bests Aubrey and the Surprise for a second time, Aubrey's resolve to capture or destroy the Acheron becomes an obsession that causes his friend to question whether it is duty or pride driving him, while the crew are led to believe they are cursed by this ‘phantom’ ship. The crew lay the blame for the curse on one of their own, with tragic consequences.
The remainder of the film is, on the surface at least, a cat and mouse affair with the French and British Captains calling on all of their skills, seamanship and tactical knowledge to place themselves in a winning position.
At first glance Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World would appear to be a 'bloke's' film, in the good old fashioned sense, with cannons, swordfights and men trying to blast the shit out of each other, but a second look confirms that it is as much about the men, their ability to keep getting up for another 'go' and their complex relationships that are made even more complex in times of war.
The cinematography, battle scenes, attention to detail, sets and effects are first rate, and it is a masterstroke that so many of the films effects and illusions fit seamlessly together in such a way that you will not question for a minute that the Surprise really is on the high seas.
The acting is outstanding, the direction from Peter Weir is tight as always, no corners have been cut and no expense has been spared. The film earned itself a stack of Oscar nominations, and deservedly so. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is not just for the swashbucklers amongst us.
While this film benefits from a big screen viewing with its majestic ocean shots and panoramic battle scenes, on DVD it scrubs up as well as any other. The aspect ratio is as close to 2.35:1 as to not be worth quibbling over (2.40:1 should you care), and is razor sharp. Colouring varies, deliberately so, to reflect the nature of the dark and stormy seas or the bright and sunny colours of the Galapagos. Black levels are superb and shadow detail is extremely good, even when the action takes place below deck in the cramped, dank and dark bowels of the ship.
The overall look is of a clean, artefact and dirt free transfer, with no grain and perhaps just a hint of edge enhancement that the 'too observant for their own good' brigade might notice. While there are countless opportunities for aliasing to rear its ugly head, it is thankfully missing in action.
The layer change is as good as undetectable and well placed between scenes.
Ah, sweet DTS. Mind you, the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix included is also a damned fine effort that many will battle to differentiate. Both make immediate and exemplary use of the rears to give both the impression of space and to draw the listener in, making you feel like you are on the very ship itself. The creaking of the ship's boards, the pounding of the water against the ship and the howling wind will immerse you like few DVDs do. The subwoofer pipes in from the very first cannon blast, and is loud and deep enough to be very unsettling, even when stretched out on one's warm and cosy couch.
Great use has been made of the entire sound stage, but nothing sounds out of place or forced. Dialogue is loud, clear and mostly central. Much of the dialogue, especially in the action sequences, has been added in after the initial filming, but this is hard to detect. The storm scene and the final battle scenes will place you fair square in the middle of the action and won't let you relax. Most enjoyable.