Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World


It's been an all together too exciting week. First off, the producers of my new project, Mother Teresa: The Musical and I headed for a long weekend in New York in order to audition fresh new talent for the show. There are a lot of minor roles and chorus work requiring nuanced acting skills, amazing singing voices and the ability to tap up and down moving staircases during the many set changes. I was most worried about finding just the right actress for the small, but key, role of the Virgin Mary who guides Mother Teresa through her many adventures toward eventual sainthood. We were lucky enough to stumble on a Miss Vivian Barbagallo, a young lady who will likely be a household name once the show opens and it's the monster hit it's destined to become. Her absolute grasp of the complex character and her sublime intelligence show through in every word.

I was disappointed to find out that the Gershwin theater, where I had hoped Mother Teresa would find it's home, has been booked and we will have to scramble for another venue. We really need to get that marquee up soon to get the word out. One of the producers has suggested we shorten the title slightly in order to save on light bulbs. The latest suggestion is Ma T!!! but I'm afraid passersby will think an 'r' has burned out and come looking for deals on boxes of Wheat Thins and a dozen eggs.

I had an afternoon off between sets of auditions and wandered through Times Square down to 40th where I found some stunning fabrics for the nun's costumes in the second act Outer Space ballet and then, as the weather was freezing despite my Blackglama, I hurried back up to 42nd and ducked into a movie theater to warm up. As I did not need to be anywhere for some hours, I decided to take in a matinee and noticed they were still playing Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, a title I had some interest in but had missed last fall so I plunked down some money and was soon ensconced in a seat, popcorn in hand.

Master and Commander is based on one of a series of novels by Britisher Patrick O'Brian dealing with the adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) of the royal navy and his enduring friendship with Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), his ship's surgeon and a naturalist. The two of them weather many adventures together in the early years of the nineteenth century against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars. The first novel in the series, Master and Commander was originally considered for filming but deemed too expository and without enough action so a subsequent novel, the tenth entitled The Far Side of the World was used instead, thus explaining the somewhat cumbersome film title. While this novel had all the necessary story elements for a good film, the villains of the piece were Americans. A little Hollywood surgery was quickly done to recast the villains as the equally plausible French. (France and America were allies and these are part of the events leading up to the War of 1812.)

As our story opens, Aubrey is captaining the HMS Surprise off the coast of South America, searching for the French privateer Acheron. He finds her, but the enemy ship is larger, faster, and outguns the Surprise, wounding our heroes' ship in battle. Aubrey uses all of his resources to escape, and then decides to repair and pursue, as he is ordered, over the doubts of Maturin and his other officers. The Surprise rounds Cape Horn in an exciting storm sequence, and ends up in the Galapagos Islands, a treasure trove to a naturalist like Maturin (who anticipates Darwin's discoveries of a few years later). If you don't think Aubrey's guile and Maturin's steadfastness will eventually lead to the defeat of the Acheron, you haven't been to enough Hollywood films; the joys are not in the if, but rather the how.

Director Peter Weir, who co-wrote the script with John Collee, returns to his Australian roots, teaming up with cinematographer Russell Boyd with whom he made such films as Gallipoli and The Last Wave and major Australian star Crowe. Weir has always been a thinking director, of the less is more variety and challenging the audience to revel in the ambiguities of stories and characters. He is true to form here. He eschews by the numbers character development for slow revelation and both of his heroes are revealed to be good, but flawed men and their bond is not so much explored as accepted, allowing us to digest its meaning. It's a tricky technique to use in mainstream entertainments and may explain why the film has not been as big a hit as many good action spectaculars are.

A lesser story teller would have felt the need to open up the story for conventional romance. Weir does not. There are essentially no women in the film. Almost all the movie takes place at sea, except for brief sequences where the ship is repaired and refitted, first off the coast of Brazil and later in the Galapagos (the first time, to my knowledge, that these enchanting islands have been used by Hollywood). The relationships are all about men, and treated honestly, without either leering homoeroticism or a surfeit of buddy/buddy comic camaraderie. The story and camera are matter of fact about the cramped conditions and stress of 19th century naval life. For an action epic, much of the film is quiet and calm and cramped, true to its location, only bringing on battle against foe or elements when necessary and doing so with minimum fuss and ridiculous digital stunt work.

Crowe is one of the screen's reigning alpha males and has no difficulty embodying Captain Aubrey's leadership qualities, but the real revelation is Paul Bettany's Maturin. After his rather lightweight roles in A Knight's Tale and A Beautiful Mind, it's gratifying to see him tackle and succeed with something of substance and gravitas. His quiet strength in the face of desperation is the true soul of the film. The supporting players are well cast, but none makes the impression of the leads. The standouts are Max Pirkis as a young midshipman who is gravely wounded early in the proceedings and James D'Arcy as an officer who wishes to always do right. Billy Boyd, who proves he's really not a three foot tall hobbit, is also on hand as a sailor but has little to do other than grin.

The film is, in some ways, too realistic to appeal to those who like their action epics full of Hollywood fantasy, but it's a greatish movie with a greatish star from a greatish director and well worth a look.

Cannon firing. Collapsing sails. String duets. Officers dinner party. Self surgery. Public trephination. Public flogging. Marine iguanas. Disguised ship. Disguised French captain. 

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