Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. 20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Peter Weir. Written by Weir and John Collee. Running time: 135 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for violence and profanity). Starring Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, Billy Boyd, James D'Arcy, Lee Ingleby, David Threlfall, Max Pirkis.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is a big-budget art film if there ever was one. Beginning and ending with rousing battle sequences, it certainly has what it takes to initially appeal to the typical American film-goer, but what at first seems to be a simple sea-faring action movie quickly becomes an intensely personal film, dealing more with the relationships of the crew of the HMS Surprise than with actual sea battles. Some may find the film too slow, but I was enthralled from start to finish.

Captain "Lucky" Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) of the British navel ship Surprise has been given the unenviable task of tracking down and destroying the French boat Acheron. Aubrey is not used to losing, but for the first time he is at a severe disadvantage. The Acheron is faster, tougher, and more heavily armed than the Surprise, and after several run-ins, Aubrey realizes that his ship is really no match. Driven by pride and orders, Aubrey continues to sail after the Acheron, while trying to figure out a way to destroy the superior boat.

The first and third acts of Master and Commander show the opening and closing naval battles, and are enough to get anyone's blood racing. But it's the middle act that will either make or break the film for those in the audience. This is the time of waiting - waiting for action, waiting for land, waiting for anything. It is here that the true heart of the movie develops, in the relationship between Aubrey and the boat's doctor, Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany). They are best friends, but as the crew begins to question Aubrey's decisions, Maturin must confront Aubrey with his concerns.

I suppose it could be argued that these middle seventy-five minute of the film drag. Some parts of the film do seem a little slow, and a single side-plot about a depressed officer is interesting but unnecessary, but that is only a small portion of the film. The rest is fascinating, with stories about Maturin's naturalist studies, what it takes to run a boat, and pauses for beautiful violin music. And other than Lost in Translation, no relationship in 2003 has been portrayed with as much honesty as that between Aubrey and Maturin.

This is a triumphant acting job for Russell Crowe, who once again shows that he is one of most - if not the most - versatile actors working today. This isn't just a physical performance, like the one he gave in Gladiator; instead, he allows us to see the inner workings of his character's mind. When Aubrey is forced to sacrifice one of his men in order to save the ship, the agony of the decision is clear in Crowe's eyes.

As Doctor Maturin, Paul Bettany is no less impressive. Crowe and Bettany worked together in A Beautiful Mind (Bettany played Crowe's imaginary roommate), and the chemistry (for lack of a better term) they share is impressive. Previously, Bettany has been in more extravagant roles (think Johnny Depp), but here he is very subdued and calm. This is a terrifically understated performance.

Still, for all this, Master and Commander could not succeed without Crowe. Sitting around the dinner table, Aubrey tells one of the worst jokes I have ever heard. I won't spoil it by repeating it here, but it is truly awful, the kind of crack that burns itself into your memory. And even as you groan and wonder how anyone could think this was truly funny, you think about how much you like Aubrey. He is a true leader, a man anyone would be proud to serve under, and I can't see anyone but Crowe pulling it off as successfully. Say what you will about his personality, but Crowe changes Master and Commander from a good film to a great one.

© 2003 Matt Nolle