Originally created 04/15/04

'Master and Commander' never sails far off-course



Imagine, if you will, a movie that offers no background on its primary characters, starts its narrative in the middle of what is obviously a much larger story and riddles its dialogue with technical terms so specialized that few people can follow any conversation from beginning to end.

Now imagine your surprise when the film, against all odds, succeeds.

Such is the case with Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.

Dropping its audience on the deck of the sailing ship HMS Surprise in 1805, this film depends on visual storytelling, hints and clues subtly dropped and an unwillingness to pander to tell a tale that is engrossing, entertaining and, despite the odds, easily accessed.

Much of the credit must go to director Peter Weir (The Truman Show, Dead Poets Society, Witness), whose obsession with accuracy and authenticity is responsible for bringing to life an unfamiliar world that becomes instantly and utterly engrossing. His ability to rebuild the lost world of sailing ships and the men who inhabited them makes knowing the definition of the quarterdeck or larboard unnecessary, although both are mentioned more than once.

Because the story is relatively simple - against odds, a British warship battles its superior French counterpart - Mr. Weir is allowed to let the essentials of the story unfold in a relaxed manner. Relationships, the hierarchy onboard the Surprise, the sense of claustrophobic community that forms in tight quarters after months at sea, are gradually revealed, much as they might in real life.

Technically, Master and Com-mander is a marvel. There is nothing more difficult than shooting a movie at sea. And while much of Master was shot in the controlled environs of a studio tank, relatively little was shot on dry land. The result is a movie that becomes almost tactile in its authenticity, a film that never touts its impressive technical acumen but instead uses it to make the movie an immersive experience.

There are two versions slated for DVD release. The bargain- basement version features a lovely transfer of the film with both Dolby and DTS soundtrack tracks, but little else.

The special two-disc edition features the standard release with an extra disc filled with beautifully made making-of documentaries. The filming process, the story of the script and the impressive technical aspects of the process are all tackled, but in a way that will appeal to both the hardened filmdanista and the casual viewer. Particularly worthwhile is the long doc 100 Days, which follows the production from first stirrings to final cut.

Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or steven.uhles@augustachronicle.com