One keeps waiting for Russell Crowe to slip up and star in a bad movie and so far he's gladly been able to disappoint us - well the good news with 'Master' is that he's done it again. Peter Weir's sailing epic has proven quite a surprise - its extremely good and whilst its trailers were on the limp side, the film itself plays like a great "Horatio Hornblower" episode if they had a real budget and more cinematic hands behind the helm. In a few short months thanks to the likes of this and "Pirates of the Caribbean", the sea-faring swashbuckler flick has gone from being a pariah in movie circles, to the next great 'reborn craze' like all the sword & sandal epics currently in production which got new life thanks to "Gladiator".
But whereas 'Pirates' was a deftly entertaining crowd-pleaser with action and a family/youth-oriented slant, 'Master' is an altogether different beast - a smart adult character drama which mixes equal amounts of realistically clever strategic action sequences, quiet moments of contemplation, and a meticulous attention to detail. Weir has proven one of the great filmmakers and this is amongst his best efforts since the likes of his early Australian work with the epic war drama "Gallipoli" or the hauntingly tragic "Picnic at Hanging Rock".
'Master' is a unique film in a few ways - firstly the narrative is set almost entirely on or below the decks of the sailing vessel HMS Surprise, whilst the characters themselves are the sole ones on-screen. Sure we get glimpses of island natives and the enemy ship's crew, but they're brief and only enough time for one or two lines - this is entirely about the crewmen onboard the ship and their interactions with each other. There's no real story except for the pursuit of the enemy French vessel Acheron, and even that antagonist not only goes missing for much of the film but when it does appear its more like a force of nature than anything else as we know nothing about the crew which remain faceless and unseen for practically the full runtime.
Yet for over two hours it remains completely captivating. A lot of it has to do with the cast which truly work well together. Crowe is a major talent absolutely no question, he ALWAYS gives it a go in every performance he does and yet while his portrayal here isn't a memorable performance like some of his more recent work (ala "The Insider", "A Beautiful Mind"), its still a rock solid anchor around which everyone gyrates. Crowe's matched, if not beaten by co-star Paul Bettany as the more science-oriented Maturin - both of these very opposite characters play off each other extremely well and the 'friendship' aspect of the two is handled with great care and thus comes off with pitch perfect credibility. The various young faces of the cast lend strong support, especially Max Pirkis as a very young blond sailor whom Aubrey takes under his wing after a terrible injury is sustained in the opening sequence.
The behind-the-scenes talent is equally up to the task, most notably Russell Boyd. Cinematography wise this is one of the more stunning looking movies of the year, truly epic in visual scope and combined with long-time collaborator Weir, Boyd's steady hand makes the stark beauty of the Galapagos Islands or the raging waters of the South Seas around Cape Horn and Tierra Del Fuego look superb. The score, the editing, etc. are all quite beautifully handled. Both towards the start and end are some great suspenseful chase and action scenes involving the enemy ship which work the tension level extremely well without going overboard (no pun intended). Production value wise this film is simply immaculate.
Yet it all stops just short of becoming a classic. Why? Well most notably the whole point of the film. The best epics revolve around a key central plot with a lot personally at stake for the protagonist and while there is one here with the French vessel's pursuit, it feels like its not taken seriously at times and completely ignored at others. There's all sorts of little subplots and vignettes in here (eg. the drowning sailor, the bullied lieutenant) which while enjoyable, are essentially padding as they add little to the plot or character development. Crowe and Bettany obviously stand out of the crowd of course, but many of the other sailors remain nameless faces despite quite a few having dialogue (for example Billy Boyd who keeps popping up here and there with little explanation). The lack of laughter doesn't help alleviate some of the 'lighter' scenes, and the odd attempts at humour (such as the dinner dessert) are painfully bad.
Like I said before, this is no 'Pirates'. Its smarter, slower, more skillfully made and realistic, but more internal and serious too. Its a production made by some of the most skilled people in the business - the kind of people who churn out films rather than products, where quality is far more important than time or quantity. Thus the end result speaks for itself. As films go this year this is one of the highlights, certainly not the best but it is amongst the real quality efforts of the year. Audiences might find it a little soggy & talkative, but that's part of its charm - its a nicely intimate piece crafted with more intelligence than many films out there and for that it should be applauded.