The Patrick O'Brian Compendium

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Reviewed by Tony Townsend, Patrick O'Brian Compendium Webmaster

How could anyone encapsulate the scope and sense of the life's work of Patrick O'Brian? How could any film team, no matter how much money they spent, bring all the personas to life? Even Hollywood egos must realize that they have SOME limitations.

Having waited ten years for the mills of Hollywood to grind out a cinematic interpretation of the novels I've spent so much time reading and listening to, I was anxious that the experience just not be too awful. As it turns out, it was a true delight; what Russell Crowe, Peter Weir and friends have done is an amazing accomplishment. They have grafted another branch on the evolutionary tree of the Aubrey-Maturin novels. The analogy is like chimps and human beings - they are different branches from the same ancestor, but we are not direct descendants of chimps, nor are we exact copies. The film is good, very good, but it is not the books brought to life, nor is it a logical progression of the series. It is two hours and twenty minutes of damned fine film, using the characters, settings and ideas created by Patrick O'Brian but molded by Peter Weir into something that stands on its own.

That said, you'll enjoy the movie a lot more if you read some of the series before you go to the cinema, and it doesn't have to be the two books that make up the film's title. This is because several of the stylistic elements and devices of the books are laced throughout the movie with no explanation whatever - toasted cheese, Killick's ramblings, Steven's lubberliness and others. It's as though Peter Weir wanted to give die-hard PO'B aficionados something to wink at their neighbors about, in-jokes as it were. Then there is the dialogue - many of the lines are spoken in, shall we say, a stereotypical English mumble, and if you've read the books, you'll know what was said. If you're new to Napoleonic-era naval warfare, you may well find yourself saying over and over "what the heck was that he just said?"

And, of course, something had to go to fit into 140 minutes and that was the female side of the novels. Sophie is only referred to in the heading of one letter, and Diana never appears at all. Actually, other than Amazonian ladies-of-the-evening and some hens, the fair sex might as well not exist.

All movies involve a willing suspension of disbelief and for those of us who can recite the text of the series chapter and verse, this one is no exception. As is well-known by now, O'Brian's rendering of our own dear doctor as a "short cove in an ill-fitting scrub wig" is a casualty of the Hollywood casting process. Then you have an Australian playing an Englishman, and an Englishman playing an Irishman, and a hobbit playing the faithful coxswain. For other nits to pick, see Ken Ringle's article in the Style section of the Washington Post of November 14, 2003.

Epic is an overused moniker, and to use it here might make you think the movie is set on a grand scale that it really isn't. What you do get when you leave your multiplex seat is a feeling of a ripping good yarn, well-told and gloriously presented. That the experience differs from the books is not a weakness, rather it adds to the overall enjoyment.

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