Aside from some gripping battles and a storm sequence to rival anything seen on screen, Peter Weir's Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is as much about daily shipboard life during the Napoleonic era--especially the relationship between Captain Aubrey (Russell Crowe) and Doctor Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany)--as it is about spectacle. Aubrey is a powerful figure whose experience and strength of character commands unwavering trust and respect from his crew; Crowe seems in his element naturally enough. Bettany, though, is his match on screen as Aubrey's intellectual foil. Director Weir successfully translates their relationship from novel to screen by subtly weaving in their past history and leaving viewers--whether they've read Patrick O'Brian's books or not--to do the thinking.
Although the film's special effects ate up a huge budget they never overtake the drama, with characterisation and painstaking attention to historical accuracy taking centre stage. Matching action to detail, drama to humour, and special effects to well-sketched characters, Master and Commander is a deeply satisfying big-screen experience, breathing a bracing gust of sea air into Hollywood megabuck filmmaking. --Laura Bushell