Movie poster. 'Master and Commander' is based on Patrick O'Brian's now famous Aubrey/Maturin novels, regarded by many as the greatest series of historical novels ever written. Click here to buy the book

Peter Weir's 'Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World' is an exuberant sea adventure told with uncommon intelligence; we're reminded of well-crafted classics before the soulless age of computerized action

Capt. Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) warns his crew that the HMS Surprise is about to come under attack

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Director: Peter Weirno
Cast: Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, James D'Arcy, Edward Woodall, Chris Larkin, Max Pirkis, Jack Randall, and Max Benitz
Duration: 138 minutes

Never before has so much been owed by so many to so many yet remembered by so dismally few and most of those only during A-level revision. For those of you who thought that Napoleon gained fame alongside Ilya Kuriakin, hang your heads in shame and reread your Schama. It's quite true that our little island is lucky to still speak English: but most threats were of our speaking French rather than German. It's worth noting that the penultimate country to leave its indelible mark on our language was France (at least most kids have heard of 1066) and when, eventually and after millions of corpses to show for it, Bonaparte was packaged off to Elba, it's equally worth noting that 'Germany' was merely a figure of speech.

And for those of you who have prophesied that the fly-on-the-wall, reality-docu-dram-soap flame self-extinguished yonks ago, kindly reconsider: it has merely evolved. You last watched it going through the contrived motions of embarrassing the illiterate by subjecting them to the cruel hindsight of softly-murmured voice-overs. But, surprise, it has left the crass limitations of your lounge to enjoy the grainy opulence of 35mm. And there are few better ways to survive, and few finer examples of such success than this.

By rights there should be no better time: with frog-baiting a national hobby across the pond and a palpable increase in tellified history here, there should be every reason to make films glorifying heroism, beating barbarism, and exercising a spot of Regime Change once the hoovering's done. But in Master and Commander you just don't get a sense of any of this. For all the hype of requiring three studios to finance it, HMS Surprise has had all the Hollywood ripped from within. There is no bombast, nor are there flawless heroes who defy orders and the occasional laws of physics to accomplish the impossible for Freedom, Liberty, Truth etc. Instead, seven years after Abukir, and with Napoleon spotting plenty of globe left to ravish and moreover to save us from the fate of good food and wine and a written constitution, Russell Crowe presents "Lucky" Jack Aubrey as the Royal Navy captain into high values and higher art. He loses the first battle of the film, puts faith in the doomed and is forced to commit friends to the type of watery end that no audience clinic would vote for. As for votes, consider the ever-increasing penchant for democracy. Surely, with the military a concentration of our society's ethical ideals, there should be some of that democracy thing there, too. But just imagine it: "On the order of casting the ship to starboard and of priming the aft cannon at approaching man o'war, the ayes to the left..." Ten minutes with Aubrey and you'd be voting for despotism.

Much has been said of the Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novels with good reason and Peter Weir's compendium of two of the best-known demonstrates that there is much to be said for a historical drama that portrays fact and lets you decide whether or not you like it by yourself. As you'd expect for a Napoleonic naval tome, Master and Commander can be a little grisly and Weir neither shirks from nor enjoys displaying the body parts when it's their time to go. Instead, you're coolly reminded that in times of war, people die - and not just the ones you don't like. There are few instances where directors have taken the risk to simply point a camera at what they thought was true and make do with that. It's harder than it sounds, with the urge to communicate often trampling on the story's power to do itself justice. Just ask Private Ryan.

There are two moments that the film's triumvirate of composers got carried away by sentiment, but, mysteriously decided against composing afresh and merely inserted a tasty Vaughan Williams number from 1910. The Tallis Fantasia has its moments, just not specifically these. At least it keeps the soundtrack breathing between snippets of Mozart and Locatelli. And there's always the chance that the Tallis was an afterthought: remarkably few things in cinema are intentional. But the repeated close-ups on Crowe's ambiguous fiddle technique are below and beyond. Is this nitpicking? Definitely. Perhaps we can criticise the sea for appearing so blue...

In reuniting the principals from A Beautiful Mind Peter Weir has accomplished something special in its intensity and highly emotive in its dry tone, a concerted attempt of true portrayal of maritime warfare, yet it shall still wallow at the box office in the wake of the fiscal savvy of The Matrix: Revolutions - which can dazzle only in its pointlessness - but which nevertheless raked it in despite every humane voice calling for it to be put down. If Master and Commander has a flaw, it is that it's admirably unique. If there has been any attempt on celluloid to capture a moment, episode and epoch without once resorting to informing the audience when and how they should emote, it is this, and impressively so. But don't allow anything less than amputation prevent you from making your mind up yourself. As Messrs O'Brian, Weir, Crowe et al have laboured to ensure, that's entirely the point.

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DVD Extras: Making of featurette The Hundred Days. Peter Weir on directing. Special effects documentary. Sound design documentary. HBO First Look special. The Last Battle multi-angle studies. Camera setups and split screen vignette. Stills galleries. Interactive sound recording feature. Inside look at I Robot.

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