During the Napoleonic Wars, Lucky Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) captains the crew of his H.M.S. Surprise. When the ship is suddenly attacked by a superior enemy, it is badly damaged and much of his crew is injured. In a bold and dangerous move, Aubrey decides to set sail in a high stakes chase across two oceans to intercept and capture their foe. It's a mission that can decide the fate of a nation, or destroy Lucky Jack and his crew.

A triumph.

We've had to wait five years for a new film from director Peter Weir. His decision to adapt the naval stories of Patrick O'Brian was challenging because lovers of the novels know just how meticulous O'Brian was about details of life at sea during the Napoleonic Wars. When his ship, the Surprise, is attacked by a French privateer, the Acheron, off the coast of Brazil Captain Jack Aubrey, Russell Crowe, retreats to tend his wounded men, bury the dead and refit his ship. The French frigate is faster and better armed but Aubrey is determined to prevent French access to the Pacific. His great friend, the ship's doctor and naturalist Maturin, Paul Bettany, may disagree with him but Aubrey has a heightened sense of his own leadership and of his responsibility as captain. He decides to give chase and follow the Acheron around Cape Horn. En route there are convivial dinners and tales of the great Admiral Nelson and some musical moments. But you never forget that you are at sea, enclosed in a world that is both comforting and vulnerable.

This superb recreation of lives lived 200 years ago in quite extraordinary circumstances has some stunning action sequences in the sea battles, which look like classic paintings come alive, and in the rounding of the Cape during a storm, but the drama on board the Surprise is muted. The men respect Aubrey and even Maturin's misgivings about Aubrey's decisions are mildly expressed. The drama comes from the delicate depiction of the psychology of men, the hubris, the cowardice, the heroism, the humour. But the real achievement of the film is that there is never any sense of self-consciousness in its creation of another era. It draws us into this world so seductively, so convincingly that for a couple of hours we are living history. And ending up in the Galapagos Islands is a real treat, it's the first film ever allowed to shoot in that ecologically delicate location. And to top everything, performances are superb.

Comments by David Stratton: Magnificent achievement from Peter Weir, this superb epic can justly be compared with the work of David Lean. The seemingly authentic look at life aboard a British naval ship in 1805 – the year of Trafalgar – is filled with characters, starting with Russell Crowe's Captain, who are interesting and utterly believable. Stunning camerawork by Russell Boyd, it's hard to find any fault in this thoroughly enjoyable and tremendously exciting movie.

Watch the trailer: 



Watch 'Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World'

Friday 26 March, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies / NOTE: No catch-up at SBS On Demand

USA, 2003
Genre: Drama, Adventure, War
Language: English
Director: Peter Weir
Starring: Russell Crowe, Billy Boyd, Paul Bettany, James D'Arcy

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