leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh
There's no need to be a fan of Patrick O'Brian's 20 Aubrey/Maturin novels to enjoy Peter Weir's adaptation of the first and tenth entries in the series. O'Brian's books have been called Tom Clancy thrillers for history buffs, but for all the minutiae of 19th-century warships and naval strategy, their heart lies in the complex friendship between Captain "Lucky Jack" Aubrey (Russell Crowe) and ship physician Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany). It's 1805, two years after the start of the Napoleonic wars: Aubrey, longtime commander of the HMS Surprise, is cruising along Brazil's eastern coast when he receives orders to stop the French warship Acheron from extending hostilities into the Pacific. The catch: The Acheron is newer, faster, better-armored and equipped with 44 cannons of greater range than the venerable Surprise's 28; taking her will have to be a victory of skill and cunning over brute military strength. The adversaries are almost immediately launched into pitched battle. The Acheron melts out of the fog and gives the Surprise and her crew a brutal beating from which only Aubrey's experience enables them to escape — the crippled Surprise is literally towed by crewmen in lifeboats to safety in a fog bank. Weir establishes character with exceptional dexterity; within minutes a good dozen individuals who will play featured parts in the story have emerged from the crowd. The film's overall momentum comes from Aubrey's decision to pursue the Acheron when a more temperate officer would have taken his battered ship and crew home. But its drama comes from relationships between the officers and crew, crammed together under circumstances Samuel Johnson famously described as like prison, "with the added danger of drowning." The erosion of morale when a well-liked seaman is swept overboard and Aubrey must let him drown rather than endanger the ship. The growing suspicion that insecure midshipman Hollom (Lee Ingleby) is a "Jonah" — a jinx. The maturing of 13-year-old Lord Blakeney (Max Pirkis), entrusted to Aubrey by his father; the youngster loses both an arm and his scarcely older best friend, rises to Aubrey's carefully timed offers of additional responsibility and develops an interest in Maturin's passion, the study of natural history. With the exception of a brief sequence on the Galapagos Islands, where Maturin briefly indulges in some pre-Darwinian study of its unique ecosystem, the entire film takes place aboard the ship, and Weir's greatest accomplishment may be that it never feels claustrophobic.