Director Peter Weir
Captain Jack Aubrey …. Russell Crowe
Dr. Stephen Maturin …. Paul Bettany
First Lt. Thomas Pullings …. James D’Arcy
Second Lt. William Mowett …. Edward Woodall
Midshipman Lord William Blakeney …. Max Pirkis
Barrett Bonden, Captain’s Coxswain…. Billy Boyd
This is a most unusual form of “chase” film. Adapted from the Patrick O’Brien novel of the same title, it is set in 1805. (O’Brien’s book has the privateer as American, but in the post-liberty world of 911 America Hollywood and American bad guys do not go together.) A Royal Navy frigate The Surprise with orders to “burn, sink, or take her a prize” is in pursuit of a French privateer Acheron which has been preying on British shipping on the Spanish Main (the mainland of the American continent enclosing the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico). The Acheron is eventually captured after a chase which includes going round the Horn.
As a dramatic vehicle, a ship has the same advantages as the country-house, boarding school, POW camp or small village: it is a self-contained world with sufficient numbers of people to be interesting but not too many to overwhelm the action or the development of character. And so it proves here.
Although it is an action film, it is about as far from being the mindless if enjoyable mayhem of a Terminator film as can be imagined. The fight scenes, broadsides and boarding parties included, take perhaps thirty minutes out of more than two hours. This allows plenty of time for the development of character, most notably between the captain, Jack Aubrey, and his ship’s surgeon and naturalist, Stephen Maturin. But there is also space for other subordinate stories such as the friendship between two midshipman, which has elements of Tom Brown and Scud East.
Russell Crowe as Aubrey and Paul Bettany as Maturin, are both first rate. Crowe does what he did in Gladiator, inhabit a role which allows his ability to portray a man with both natural authority and humanity full reign, this time with bonus of being the nearest thing to an absolute monarch known to English society, captain of a Royal Naval ship at the beginning of the 19th century. (His RP English accent is almost perfect – the odd vowel sound goes awry.)
As for Bettany, he showed what he suggested in A beautiful mind, that rarest of qualities in an actor: the portrayal of intellect. Probably only Ralph Fiennes amongst present day actors could do it as well and he with more coldness than Bettany, who made his character here a thoroughly sympathetic one. There is an exquisite scene when Maturin has to operate on himself to remove a bullet beneath his ribs. He asked Crowe whether he is up to assisting him with a steady hand. “My dear doctor, ” replies Crowe, “I have spent my life around blood and wounds.” A few minutes into the operation Crowe looks distinctly queasy and Bettany between grimaces of pain allows himself a triumphant smile. Almost worth the price of entrance in itself.
The supporting cast are uniformly good, especially the very young midshipmen – their age historically correct: Nelson was a captain by the age of 20 – one of whom has an arm amputated early in the film – no anaesthetic mind – and then becomes Bettany’s protege as a naturalist.
The film is visually beautiful and exciting. With ninety percent at least of the film set on the Surprise at sea, the ocean is seen in all its states from doldrum calm to Cape Horn belligerent. The small part of the story which is on land takes place in the Galapagos where Maturin indulges his naturalist’s passion. Those scenes have a cold, uncluttered beauty about them.
Above all it is also an intensely English film. The cast, even where they are technically other than English, such as Maturin (supposedly an Irishman), are all played as Englishmen and the entire crew – with the exception of a nervous midshipman who tops himself – all behave well. It is simply the best advert for Englishness seen on the screen for many a long year.
There is a small amount of “England expects” dialogue but really very little considering the context of the film. Instead, the “advert” for England consists simply of Englishmen behaving well.