Patrick O'Brian's famous novels about the British navy (which I haven't read) have a huge following that has lauded them for their extraordinarily complete depiction of life aboard a tall ship. It makes perfect sense, then, that "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" (which takes its title from those of the first and tenth books in O'Brian's series) is just as fully realized as the material it adapts. With an attention to detail that is nothing short of incredible in every department involved in its conception, "Master and Commander" pushes the high-seas adventure genre (if there are even enough such films to deem it a genre) to previously unchartered territory.
In the 1810's, when Napoleon's empire around the world was becoming dangerously total, a British frigate named the HMS Surprise is fighting against it. It is responsible for seeking out the Acheron, a French warship with (what is described as) "more than twice" the capabilities of the Surprise, and either capturing or destroying it. Captaining the improbable mission is Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), a man whose accomplishments have earned him the nickname of "Lucky Jack". Him and his crew follow the Acheron around much of South America. Aubrey has a good reputation amongst much of the crew, but a special relationship with the surgeon, Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany). Since the two have been good friends for quite some time, Dr. Maturin is the only crew member who can exchange any truly candid words with Jack.
The friendship between Maturin and Aubrey creates a harmonic balance within the film's dynamic. Aubrey provides the heroics that give the film its adventure-like qualities. Thankfully, he is not so perfect that he becomes an uncompelling figure; he never makes all the right decisions, does not always have the perfect solution, etc. This makes him all the more fascinating to watch. (However, it's also important to note that none of Aubrey's flaws seem tacked on to provide artificial intensity). Maturin, being the much more pensive of the two, is Aubrey's opposite. While Aubrey thinks of the world as on a specific calendar within the context of his mission, Maturin would much rather take his time; he is more comfortable exploring and studying until he naturally feels he must move on.
The distinction between these two leads allows "Master and Commander" to flow in a more thoughtful and interesting way. Without the actors who fill these roles (Crowe and Bettany), it's impossible to imagine the film really could have succeeded at all. Because of their incredibly nuanced performances, the duo is the ebb and flow of the film. The same praise can easily be extended to the rest of the cast, all who give themselves entirely to the film without a single ounce of showing off.
Just as the cast is perfectly balanced, such is the structure of "Master and Commander" as a whole. There are no standout elements in the film; every single element contributes to a completely immersive experience. From its impeccable art direction to the earthy cinematography, the carefully edited sound to the all but unnoticeable special effects and obviously more, the enormous amount of effort that has been spent on this film comes through in every frame. Director Peter Weir arranges these different pieces into a construct unified through realism as oppose to sensationalism. The film successfully integrates the audience into the life of one on the Surprise, and we are no casual witnesses to the trials, horrors, claustrophobia, honor and camaraderie that accompany it.
The simple rules of the cinematic epic also dictate that the more attached we are to the characters, the bigger the payoff will be at the climax. It says a lot, then, that with little action and no manipulation, "Master and Commander", which is stirring throughout its entirety, rises to an unimaginably rousing climax. Each moment of "action" is perfectly placed.
Weir has worked both within and far outside the Hollywood system. With "Master and Commander", he is finally challenging the hand that is feeding him. He challenges Hollywood to accept that the public is not so dumb as it thinks. The film is proof that general audiences will still welcome a thoughtful, sophisticated film.