Last night the 'Fesser and I went to a sneak of the greatly anticipated, and in some quarters dreaded, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Leaving aside the traumatic search for parking in downtown Boston and the confusion that ensued when the cinetrix ducked into one of the auditoriums screening the movie while the 'Fesser chose the other, I can say that O'Brian fans have little to fear. Liberties have been taken [it's set during Napoleonic Wars rather than the War of 1812, all the better to bash the French again, etc.], but details like Jack Aubrey's fondness for puns, Padeen's lumbering muteness, and Preserved Killick's sour mien make it through to the film version intact. Or so the 'Fesser assures me. And he was squarely in the skeptics camp going in.
But what of the hoi polloi, who know nothing of Aubrey and Maturin's bumboy capers? Will this movie attract enough of those viewers to make back its reported $150 million cost? How many pirate movies not starring Keith Richards can the public be expected to embrace in a single year? There's no love story [a friend warned me about the "one sultry native" who appears during a brief encounter with Sting's Brazilian rainforest pals and seems included solely to be in the trailer]; no pouty Keira Knightley. Will the ladies go see it? Or will they boycott it in favor of the distaff version of Weir's own Dead Poets Society?
Such questions seem to trouble the Times, which ran this article as part of its ongoing strategy of surrounding prestige movie openings with page-filling meditations on violent women, the perils of improvising a racial self [whatever that means], whither the awards season, and other "zone-flooding" think pieces.
I don't want to spoil the movie for those panting to see it, but with Master and Commander Weir continues to make interesting choices in a 12-movie, 26-year career littered with them. As a director, he seems drawn to stories about conscribed communities bounded by ritual and language. Think about the school girls in Picnic at Hanging Rock [which Weir actually shortened for his director's cut, to ratchet up the unbearable suspense still further], or the Fox family in The Mosquito Coast [a favorite dystopia of the cinetrix], or the police detectives and the plain people in Witness, all living by codes that consciously separate them from the mainstream. Another constant is the disruptions that inevitably rip apart these isolated environs stem from the excessive pridefulness of the protagonists.
Master and Commander hews to both of these themes, as the H.M.S. Surprise, captained by Lucky Jack Aubrey [Crowe is very good] with the advice of Stephen Maturin [Bettany is good but a little slight], gives chase to the phantasmic French ship Acheron across the South American seas. [You never get any information from the point of view of the French, an effective ploy that had me whispering to the 'Fesser, "Who are those guys?"] But you are immersed, at times nearly drowned, in the world of the Surprise and come to care for a large number of characters.
Weir also does an excellent job eliciting great performances from the young--and I do mean young--actors playing the various midshipmen, particularly Blakeney [Max Pirkis]. No icky Hollywood wise children here. As Anthony Lane observes, "It is a shock to be reminded of the beardless age at which the sons of good families used to be pushed into the service." Lane's review in this week's New Yorker, in fact, is surprisingly subdued for a film he clearly likes a great deal. You get the sense that he himself is one of the fervid O'Brian fans to which he alludes, and is only just realizing he can stop holding his breath. "They" didn't ruin it. [Of course, he then works in a pun in the final graf that would shame Aubrey himself.]
Fun fact to know and shout: Weir got "Fox to buy a reproduction of an 18th-century frigate, the Rose, which eventually was reoutfitted as the Surprise for the movie, even before he had a deal to make the film." That's pretty boss.
It'll definitely rake in sound design statuettes come Oscar time, but will the Surprise stay afloat at the almighty box office? I hope so, even if it means a longer wait to see it again in the second-run houses. I haven't enjoyed a no-girls-allowed movie this much since Mamet's real estate guys hit the silver screen.