First, I’d like to start by saying that I have not read the books, so for you … enthusiasts of the books the movie is based on, my review probably won’t speak to you. Really, you should all go speak amongst yourselves; you are probably of common mind.
Next, I’d like to say that I walked in with practically no expectations for this movie. Normally before I see a movie, whether I want to or not, I’ll know who all the actors are, the writer(s), director, producers, budget, on-set problems, financial expectations, oh, and the entire storyline, often with complex understandings of the characters and sometimes even with the ‘twists’ which are supposed to shock and surprise me. This time, it was just the first seven, which for those of you too lazy to count, means I had no idea what the movie’s story was, or whether it really even deigned to have a story. The only descriptions I’d had of the movie were about how very much like actually being on a ship it was. No mention of story or character (aside from some people looking too far and seeing homosexuality where even my keen eye so no real evidence), just technical details.
So, as I said, I didn’t know what to expect from the movie. Actually, this was my primary motivation against seeing the movie; I had no way to judge whether I would like it or not. Technical accuracy aside, without a carefully crafted story and believable characters (likeable or not), an epic period piece like this is doomed. For instance, I know I’ll enjoy Hidalgo, and having learned the actual story of The Last Samurai (not from the in-theatre-trailers, mind you, but from people who have seen the film or read the book), I believe I may enjoy that as well. So, I tried to go with an open mind, looking for entertainment.
And boy did I find it, now and again. Almost immediately, we are drawn into an excellently executed and edited battle sequence, and I just loved it. It was fast paced and violent and accurate to naval tactics at the time (based on some other reading I have done) and really did well to introduce the feeling of such a battle at sea. It really drew me into the film. They say that a viewer decides in the first ten minutes whether they will like a film or not, and despite the next two hours and ten minutes being somewhat patchy at times, the first ten minutes may have set my mind onto enjoying the film overall.
It has a little story: an older model of ship of the English Royal Navy is chasing (or is it being chased by) a brand new make of ship fighting for Napoleon’s Navy. The old tactics are fairly ineffective against the new type of ship, and the english captain is fairly crazy in his pursuit of it, well beyond his orders. The cat and mouse game they play is the line across which the characters dance in this peice, and it is played out excellently for the most part.
There are several battle sequences in the film, and after the first one, there are … well, the way I tend to judge complicated action sequences is by whether or not I am able to follow what is going on. In the second big battle, only 1/3 of the way in or so, I found myself lost. It wasn’t jargon I didn’t know, because I have somehow picked up most of it already. It may have been characters I didn’t recognize; the ship’s crew at the start of the film is nearly 200, and I swear I’m meant to be able to recognize a full quarter of them to tell what’s going on. Perhaps easy in a book, but more difficult on screen in such a short time. Then again, it could have simply been poor writing or editing that lost me somewhere amidships without a clue to who was winning or losing, who was alive or dead, and what I might be able to do to help.
And as soon as they were out of that battle, I regained my sea legs and was able to follow the characters around the ship again, but … it kept happening, usually in particularly intense sequences. Now, multiple viewings (which may occur, I feel I prefer this film and performance by Russel Crowe to that in Gladiator, which I already own on DVD, so if Master and Commander joins it, I shall not be surprised) may make these sequences more clear, as hind-sight always does, but I feel it is a director’s job, and the editor behind him, to ensure that the story is told in a way that the average viewer does not feel out of place in their seat.
Luckily, the last two reels of the film were practically without this problem (the only confusion I had at all was with a character or two I didn’t recognize, but in watching them die, realized I was meant to), including the final exchange between the ships, which was exciting and powerful, and quite fun to experience. All the characters I did manage to get to know during the course of the film were played out in exciting and interesting ways, growing and changing as characters, through the course of the film gradually, but also very quickly in the crux of battle, in ways that made sense for the characters. Excellent.
The biggest problem I had with the whole thing was a little bit about a stick-bug. A little too obvious, a little too telling… I mean, you really don’t need to hit me so hard in the face with foreshadowing.
But they did draw me in. Bellamy’s performance was the best I’ve seen from him, and I considered him the highlight of all the other films I’ve seen him in. The young players were particularly impressive in their acting, and Billy Boyd stood out as he had little chance to in the LotR trilogy. Truly, the technical details were astounding and accurate, and they really did well to give the feeling of being on a ship as best one can in two dimensions and two hours. Overall, I highly recommend it. And if you can follow the battle sequences better than I, there will be very little wrong with it in your experience.