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8th December 2003 permanent link

… for Master & Commander. For fans of the books, that is – I can’t see it being half as much fun for the rest of the audience. (If there is a “rest of the audience”. The English language cinema in Munich where I just saw it wasn’t exactly packed)

They’ve loosely followed the story of one of the books (the Far side of the World, not surprisingly) but the thing is packed with nicely-done references to bits from quite a few of the of the books. The final battle scene is basically the final battle scene from the first novel, Master and Commander, and it’s done very well indeed. Some of the atmospheric sailing scenes are done superbly too – the Cape Horn storm scene is fantastic, and so is becalmed in the tropical heat. They’ve invented a couple of major scenes that aren’t in the books – the end of the first battle, and a man overboard in the storm – and done them really well. The second one in particular is totally gripping, very true to the spirit of the story, and contributes to the plot.

I didn’t really like the camera work and the lighting, but I totally see what they were trying to do with it and they did it well. (Update 4th March 2004 – they won the Oscar for best cinematography). A lot of it is very dark, very tightly shot and visually quite cluttered and oppressive. It’s almost all shot within the ship, very few long shots. This does two things. One is that it conveys just how claustrophobic it must have been to have two hundred men packed into a small frigate – you actually get more sense of that than in the books. The other is that consciously or otherwise – and they do it so well I think they must have been doing it deliberately – they have the look of contemporary paintings of sea battles off perfectly. It’s like two hours of looking at oil paintings in the Maritime Museum at Greenwich. On the other hand, the constant tight, oppressive within-the-ship shots, with little variation in perspective, do get wearing. There are only a couple of shots in the whole thing I would actually regard as beautiful, whereas the books are full of visual beauty.

Russell Crowe is actually a good Jack Aubrey. He isn’t quite the Jack Aubrey in my mind’s eye, but he’s a lot closer than I expected and I forgive him. Paul Bethany plays the part of the Stephen Maturin in the film very well, although the part is really no more than a placeholder for the real Stephen Maturin in the books. Tom Pullings is a minor part in the film, but is played absolutely right. Killick – also just right. But what were they thinking casting the hobbit guy as Barret Bonden? He’s completely wrong (and not just because he once played a hobbit).

They did a good job with the mix of ages – most of the crew very young, including the huge amount of responsibility junior officers in their teens were expected to cope with, but plus a fair proportion of much older seamen and officers, guys in their fifties and sixties. This is all part of the huge amount of effort they obviously put into getting the look just right.

Nice soundtrack.

Great fun if you’re a fan of the books but can keep an open mind about the fact that what you can do in a two hour film is fundamentally different from what you can do in seventeen novels. They’ve really done a nice job. I didn’t feel in the least disappointed, irritated or personally betrayed. Not a great film otherwise, although the guys I went with seemed to enjoy it.

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