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Classy seafaring story

Will this rousing, nautical film, "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World", make its landfall in 2004? ANAND PARTHASARATHY finds in the new Russell Crowe yarn, that salty tang of some classic tales of derring-do at sea.

"Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" ... visually elegant.

FROM A Roman "Gladiator" in the first century after Christ, to a British Naval captain during the Napoleonic Wars of early 19th century, is a massive leap even in the make-believe world of Cinema. But when Australian Russell Crowe does it — within the space of three years - he makes it look commonplace. That's charisma, Hollywood style. And it comes as no surprise that his new film that has just opened its India run, "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World", is already being spoken about as the stuff for Oscars by the sackful.

After so many loud and soul-less special-effects-heavy spectaculars, the public and presumably the Academy Awards voters, long for the less technically awesome but more story-driven products of an earlier era.

"Master and Commander" seems cannily crafted to satisfy this nostalgic yearning in every possible department of the film.

The story involves the telescoping of two separate works by British historical writer Patrick O'Brian, who between 1970 and his death in 2000, penned 20 novels set during the Anglo-French maritime wars of the early 1800s.

They featured a pair of unlikely friends, a dashing naval captain Jack Aubrey and the ship's more intellectual doctor, Stephen Maturin. O'Brian's naval yarns are considered by his fans to be among the best in the historical fiction genre, combining rousing action, accurate period detail with some sharp character studies.

Director Peter Weir, part of the 1980s movement known as the Australian `New Wave', was already a respected practitioner within the Hollywood system having crafted such memorable movies as the 1982 docu-drama set in a strife-ridden Indonesia of the mid-1960s, "The Year of Living Dangerously", as well as the unusual US crime story, "Witness" (1985), starring Harrison Ford and the more recent satire on reality shows, "The Truman Show".

To his latest film he brings the same penchant for placing ordinary men in extraordinary situations and allowing their character to react to unforeseen events. And to help him highlight the hothouse atmosphere on board the claustrophobic confines of a warship, he had fellow Australian Russell Crowe to helm the title role of "Lucky Jack" Aubrey; while the relatively unknown Paul Bettany plays the cerebral surgeon, Maturin.

Crowe finds his role fascinating: ``He was a kind of man who doesn't exist any more; there's no template for Jack Aubrey,'' he says. Bettany had already worked with Crowe — as the imaginary room mate of the troubled mathematician in "A Beautiful Mind" — so the empathy paid off onscreen and off. ``Russell and Paul are beautifully weighted opposite each other ... Maturin, as Paul plays him, is the shape of the modern man, Russell as Jack is from a bygone era,'' Director Weir adds.

The stage for their interaction almost for the entire length of the 140-minute film, is HMS Surprise, the 28-gun warship, ordered by the Royal Navy to intercept and take a French privateer, `Acheron'. Weir begins and ends the film with two set-piece sea battles: the `Acheron' creeps upon `Surprise' during a fog and almost destroys her in the opening sequence; in the end, the British vessel lures the French vessel to its doom disguised as a whaling craft. In between, the story takes `Surprise' and her crew to the `far side of the world', the coast of Brazil and around the storm tossed Cape Horn to the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific.

But while the film may be set 200 years ago, and powerfully reminiscent of some of Cinema's celebrated maritime yarns (see Box), its creative sensibilities are those of today — and like Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan", the film goes for graphic depiction, to bring home the violence of the times: A 13-year old Midshipman (played by Max Pirkis) has his arm sawn off by Maturin, who also performs open skull surgery on the deck and directs the removal of a bullet from his own chest by looking at a mirror.

But visually and audibly, the film retains its elegance, prompting a seasoned critic like Roger Ebert to recall the works of David Lean ... achieving epic status while retaining the human touch.

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