In these days of cinematic sensitivity, men just aren’t afforded the opportunity to run the whole show all by themselves (not even “Lord of the Rings” gave them that privilege), but in “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” they reign supreme . . . and on their own. Virile, unhygienic and blithely oblivious of equal rights (being set in the early 19th century) the men in “Master” really are men, as opposed to guys.
In the midst of their company, you’d think there’d be a 19th-century maiden or two done up in pink bodices, but no. In this, one of last year’s best and most entertaining films (it earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination), there are absolutely no women. This seems like a risky move on the part of filmmaker/writer Peter Weir — alienating half of the audience and not letting his characters even mention the other sex (when the talk shifts to living creatures apart from men, it’s all sea turtles and iguanas). But the result makes you want to shout, “Bravo, Mr. Weir!” By excluding the fair sex he remains loyal to the spirit of the original adventure series by Patrick O’Brian and concentrates on just telling a jolly good swashbuckler of a story. After all, “Master and Commander” is about a British warship, circa 1805, and in those days, seafarers lived for months and months without women.
How did they do it? Well there’s really no evidence they were missing anything, and neither will the audience. There was plenty of fun to be had on the high seas — getting cannonballed, weathering storms and slicing pirates into ribbons, not to mention that “tot of grog” when the day’s work is over. Their ship, the H.M.S. Surprise, is under the command of authoritative, barrel-chested Capt. “Lucky Jack” Aubrey (Russell Crowe). He has just received orders to locate and take captive or destroy the enemy French warship, Acheron, and his crew trust Jack completely to fulfill the mission. The captain, for his part, is all too happy to oblige, as he barks out his authentic, ye olde navalspeak: “Hard to larboard, Mr. Warley!” “Luff, luff, and shake her!” Doesn’t it sound glorious?
Lucky Jack calls the ship “this wooden world” as it heaves and pitches on the rich, dark waves, emitting a constant creaking over which everyone yells to be heard. There are brushes with nature (storms, blizzards) and battles with the supership Acheron (getting hull to hull amid cannon-fire and clambering aboard the enemy ship with swords). Throughout it all, Jack eases the tension and takes time to reflect by making music with his friend, ship surgeon Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany) — the captain on the violin, the doctor on the cello.
Their friendship is the crux of the story and is defined by differences in temperament: Jack is all action while Maturin urges caution. But the doctor is no sissy: When he’s wounded, he extracts a bullet from his own rib cage, aided by a mirror. Jack looks on with a mixture of admiration and painful empathy. When it’s over, he doesn’t fuss or give comfort, just briefly offering words of congratulations before stalking off, obviously too moved to stick around. Call me strange, but this almost wordless scene constituted one of the sexiest moments in recent cinema.
The fact is, “Master and Commander” is unabashedly romantic, despite the total absence of anything amorous. From the tattered laces on Jack’s shirt cuffs to the chunky brass naval paraphernalia, to the golden locks of the midshipman (who is all of 13 years old), the entire package swoons with its own boyish ardor, and Weir carefully ensures no campness creeps in.
In this way, “Master” is a good companion to Weir’s 1975 work “Picnic at Hanging Rock” — about a group of Australian schoolgirls who, one Saturday in 1900, go off on a picnic, never to return. Though “Hanging Rock” was less about plot than experience — and unlike “Master” offered no cathartic ending — it created a dreamy, male-free dominion. The girls’ world, like the wooden world in which Jack moves with such assurance, was totally self-contained and cut off from society and gender politics. There too, the camera lingered on the girls’ white-lace Victorian school uniforms accented with black tights, their girlish belongings and the way they walked with arms intertwined. And then they disappeared, without trace or explanation.
There’s a similar fragility about the men in “Master.” As long as they’re on the Surprise, they seem mighty and indefatigable, fueled by their maledom come what may. On land, however — a brief jaunt on the Galapagos — they seem to falter and even Lucky Jack is ill at ease. The film ends with them still at sea, which is how it should be — perhaps when they reach England they will disappear, unable to withstand the grit of the world of landlubbers.