It's an odd claim to make for a film that won the Oscar for cinematography, but at its best Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (released on video this week) is less a visual experience than an aural one. Director Peter Weir opens with aerial shots of a tall ship accompanied by on-screen text--"H.M.S. Surprise ... N. coast Brazil. Admiralty orders: ... 'Intercept French privateer Acheron en route to Pacific.'"--before swiftly shifting to a nighttime change of watch aboard the vessel. The camera glides past sleeping sailors and silent cannons; we see a hand flip an hourglass and another ring a bell; shadowy figures climb the rigging as others descend. The real function of the scene, however, is not to let us see--it takes place, after all, at night--but to let us hear. And what we hear is a marvel. Weir and his sound people fill the darkness with the low gurgle of the sea, the heavy creak of the hull, the squeak of hammocks and lanterns swaying with the ship's roll, the strain of rope ladders carrying men's weight. The scene has no narrative or expository purpose, but it announces Weir's intentions with wordless clarity: Master and Commander may feature crashing naval battles and acts of derring-do, but its primary concern will be the portrayal of life aboard this ship, the mundane rhythms and chores that were part of life in the Royal Navy circa 1800.
The Surprise is the favorite ship of Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), appearing in more than half of the twenty historical novels by Patrick O'Brian from which Master and Commander was adapted. There are few remaining accolades to throw in the direction of these extraordinary books, which center on the lives of Aubrey and his physician-comrade Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany in the film), so I won't bother to add mine. I'll just cite the greater literary authority of John Bayley, who distinguished them from the seafaring adventures of C.S. Forester thus: "Although [O'Brian] is dutiful about giving us marine warfare ... his real interest is in the ships and the crews, in naval custom, habit, and routine, the daily ritual of shipboard life and the interplay of personality in the confinement of a wooden world. His ships are as intimate to us as Sterne's Shandy Hall or Jane Austen's village of Highbury in Emma ... except that [O'Brian's] village happens to be a wooden ship of war at the apogee of a great Navy's world sea power."
For all the complaints about liberties Weir took in his adaptation, which draws principally from the first and tenth books in O'Brian's series, he clearly understands this central point. The plot of Master and Commander is straightforward: The Surprise has been sent to destroy the French ship Acheron, which has in turn set its sights on destroying Surprise. The two ships cat-and-mouse their way (occasionally swapping roles) down the Eastern coast of South America, around the tip of Cape Horn, back up the Western coast, and on to the Galapogos Islands. In addition to two battles with the Acheron that serve to bookend the movie--the first of them a harrowing, revelatory piece of filmmaking--the Surprise deals with seas both too rough and too calm, a near-mutiny against a junior officer, and three tricky surgeries performed by Maturin (one on himself). Such episodes, in the movie as in the books, serve largely as opportunities for scrutinizing the social dynamics of naval life, the tensions between loyalty and resentment, friendship and duty, social class and military rank: Old seadogs take orders from peach-faced teenage officers; young aristocrats compete for the privilege of being the first in harm's way; and, always, Aubrey struggles to balance his dual relationship as Maturin's bosom friend and commanding officer.
Weir is aided in his anthropological and psychological explorations by Crowe, whose understated performance never threatens to overwhelm the subtle interplay of shipboard life, and Bettany, whose Maturin, an amateur naturalist and borderline anarchist, broadens the movie's subject matter beyond naval warfare. (The Maturin of the film is a narrow slice of the Maturin of the books, who is also, on occasion, a spy, a duelist, and an assassin. While the necessity of this narrative simplification is clear enough, it's less apparent why the character, introduced by O'Brian as "a small, dark, white-faced creature" is played by an actor who is six foot three, blond, and handsome. Apparently Hollywood makes giants of us all.) In the end, though, the film belongs to its supporting cast of mostly unknowns, whom Weir sketches with care: the grizzled sailor whom the crew treats as a quasi-mystic following his recovery from shipboard brain surgery (George Innes); the 13-year-old midshipman who, like his hero Lord Nelson, loses an arm in battle (Max Pirkis); the ill-fortuned "Jonah" despised by the crew (Lee Ingleby); and so on.
For all his emotional investment in the crew of the Surprise, Weir doesn't stoop to melodrama. (The jarring exception is a slow-motion suicide that recalls the director's heavy-handed treatment of Neil's death in Dead Poets Society.) Crewmembers die, and the film, like their shipmates, goes on. The tone is neither tragic nor uncaring. This is war, after all, and war in the days before modern medicine; death is an anticipated, even inevitable occurrence. There's something refreshing about this stoicism, perhaps because it represents so striking a departure from the usual aesthetic of modern film.
That said, another look at Master and Commander shows that its co-option by conservatives eager to draw parallels with the need for resolve in Iraq was more than a little silly. The film is resolutely apolitical. Yes, it extols military steadfastness and sacrifice, but those politically neutral qualities of character appear on both sides of the conflict. Aubrey respects, even admires, his French counterpart. For conservatives, of course, Jack Aubrey was at war with Jacques Chirac, a British hero out to destroy "old Europe." In Master and Commander, the enemy is just another man doing his job (albeit one that happens to be in lethal discord with Aubrey's), not an embodiment of evil or decadence or anything else. In this way, too, the film evokes a different time.
From wet to moist: For those not in the mood for the odd death by cutlass or pistol-shot, I'm delighted to report that this month also marks the video re-release of a film full of sound but not fury, Jacques Demy's glorious The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The "film in color and song," made in 1964, is perhaps the most unlikely masterpiece in all cinema: a domestic melodrama of love and loss entirely sung (actually lip-synched) in French. Where Master and Commander concerns itself with men gone off to war, Umbrellas deals with the women left behind. Seventeen-year-old Genevieve (a young and surpassingly lovely Catherine Deneuve) is in love with Guy, an auto mechanic who is called up to fight in Algeria. While he is away, Genevieve discovers she is pregnant and is pressured by her mother to marry older, wealthier Roland Cassard (Marc Michel, playing a grown-up version of his character from Demy's Lola, also recently released on DVD). Guy returns wounded from Algeria to find Genevieve gone, and attempts to put his life back together. The two meet again at the end for one of the more famous will-they-or-won't-they moments in film (and surely the most moving scene ever set in a gas station).
Often compared to the more recent Moulin Rouge, Umbrellas is in fact the opposite of that rowdy, messy film. Moulin Rouge takes large, tragic themes and makes them small and ridiculous with its pop stylings and frenetic camerawork. (How Baz Luhrman failed to realize that what he was making was a comedy is beyond me.) Umbrellas, by contrast, takes the mundane and quotidian and elevates them to heartbreaking art, in part through its complete absence of ironic detachment. For all the implicit comedy in the film (the outfits that match the wallpaper, the mother's reassurance that "people only die of love in the movies"), Demy never makes fun of his characters; even their errors and vanities are sketched with the utmost tenderness. The result is a tour de force of unsentimental sentimentality. If Master and Commander makes vivid a time and place far distant from our own, Umbrellas conjures one simultaneously familiar and impossible, everyday life glimpsed through the prism of dreams.
A final note: Though I'm generally loath to focus on the technical details of DVDs, in the case of Umbrellas it can't be avoided. Due to the peculiarities of transferring video from the PAL format used in Europe to the NTSC format used here, an earlier DVD release of the film (in a red and yellow box with both lovers on the cover) is a few minutes short--not because any was material was cut, but rather because the movie runs four percent faster than it did in theaters. The unfortunate consequence is that both the tempo and the pitch of the songs are off, subtly but significantly. Happily, the new release (in a white box with an umbrella-carrying Deneuve on the cover) not only fixes this problem but also features a beautiful widescreen anamorphic presentation and Dolby 5.1 audio. Umbrellas now looks and sounds better than it ever has outside of theaters. If you haven't seen it, do; if you have, consider a reacquaintance.
The Home Movies List:
Five wisely unfaithful adaptations L.A. Confidential. The novel aspires to be a mythic tale about evil from the past, with subplots concerning a psychotic killer and Exley's father's corrupt business deals. The film, by settling for less, winds up being more.
The Name of the Rose. Not a great movie, but a good one, and an object lesson in how to film an unfilmable book: Keep the mystery, lose the metaphysics.
Clueless. Still the cleverest classic-turned-teen-flick to date. O'Brian may recreate Highbury on shipboard, but Amy Heckerling relocates it all the way to Beverly Hills. When Emma Woodhouse becomes Cher Horowitz, the difference between books and movies is properly (and wittily) honored.
Adaptation. The Orchid Thief spun through the wormhole of Charlie Kaufman's mind, this movie is a declaration that the only limits on adaptation are imagination--and permissions.
Out of Sight. The best Elmore Leonard adaptation to date and one of the most underrated films of the 1990s. It makes this list by virtue of an inspired last scene that is not in the novel, an infidelity that solves the dilemma of how to conclude the movie in neither happy implausibility nor realistic bummerdom.
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