We need more directors willing to take risks with films like Get Out.
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. Based on the beloved novels of Patrick O'Brian, it re-creates the world of the British navy circa 1805 with such detail and intensity that the sea battles become stages for personality and character. They're not simply swashbuckling -- although they're that, too, with brutal and intimate violence.
The film centers on the spirits of two men, Capt. Jack Aubrey and ship's surgeon Stephen Maturin. Readers of O'Brian's 20 novels know them as friends and opposites -- Aubrey, the realist, the man of action; Maturin, more intellectual and pensive. Each shares some of the other's qualities, and their lifelong debate represents two sides of human nature. There's a moment in "Master and Commander" when Maturin's hopes of collecting rare biological specimens are dashed by Aubrey's determination to chase a French warship, and the tension between them at that moment defines their differences.
Aubrey, captain of HMS Surprise, is played by Russell Crowe as a strong but fair leader of men, a brilliant strategist who is also a student, but not a coddler, of his men. He doesn't go by the books; his ability to think outside the envelope saves the Surprise at one crucial moment and wins a battle at another. Maturin is played by Paul Bettany, who you may recall as Crowe's imaginary roommate in "A Beautiful Mind." He's so cool under pressure that he performs open-skull surgery on the deck of the Surprise (plugging the cranial hole with a coin), and directs the removal of a bullet from his own chest by looking in a mirror. But his passion is biology, and he is onboard primarily because the navy will take him to places where there are beetles and birds unknown to science.
The story takes place almost entirely onboard the Surprise, a smaller vessel outgunned by its quarry, the French warship Acheron. Using an actual ship at sea and sets in the vast tank in Baja California where scenes from "Titanic" were shot, Weir creates a place so palpable we think we could find our own way around. It is a very small ship for such a large ocean, living conditions are grim, some of the men have been shanghaied on board, and one of the junior officers is 13 years old. For risking their lives, the men are rewarded with an extra tot of grog, and feel well-paid. There are scenes at sea, including the rounding of Cape Horn, which are as good or better as any sea journey ever filmed, and the battle scenes are harrowing in their closeness and ferocity; the object is to get close enough in the face of withering cannon fire to board the enemy vessel and hack its crew to death.