Rewind to the 1800s - a time when Napoleon's army had only the British to contend with on the path to world supremacy. A time when wars were waged on the ruthless ocean against the ebbs and flows of sheer luck mostly, and soldiers were kept warm by, yes, patriotism and the call of duty, but also the more immediate comfort of being sure that their Captain knew what the hell he was doing. If you followed him to the far side of the world, he'd make sure you wouldn't fight in vain.
Captain Lucky Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) is a proud seafarer completely in tune with the ship he commands, and has so much of his "blood running in its walls that it's almost a relative". He has the complete self-assurance of a leader who's had to make some tough calls on himself and his men, and one who doesn't comprehend defeat as something that happens to him. This might be misguided, but it's also utterly beguiling, and the way Crowe plays it, utterly believable.
One unexpected morning at the start of the film, HMS Surprise, Aubrey's ship, is attacked by an enemy vessel, the Acheron (or the Phantom, as the more superstitious on board call it). Smarting from that stab in the dark, Aubrey is determined to track the enemy through the high seas and take it captive. The film is a tale of this chase and the price it exacts.
But it's also an evocatively told story about men who are struggling to keep their grip on the civilization that they've set out to defend. Hierarchy is threatened when the men gang up against an officer and push him over the edge to suicide. The futility of war is only too clear to the ship's surgeon and naturalist, Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany, who gets better every time). A dear friend of Aubrey's, he is the only one on the ship to suspect the role of the Captain's ego in the entire chase for revenge.
Another endearing character is the painfully young Lord Blakeney (Max Pirkis), a thirteen-year-old who braves the amputation of his arm in a beautifully shot sequence and who later goes on to command the deck during the final battle.
For a movie shot on such a large scale, Master And Commander is full of touching detail and some pretty breathtaking cinematography. Warships firing at each other, orange blasts through the sea mist; the HMS Surprise photographed with such love, you wince when a gunshot splinters through its side; the patching of a sailor's fractured skull with a coin; the merciless storms and the violins in the narrative background: these are elements that remain with you. And ones that will probably win this film a couple of Oscars this year (Best Picture, Best Director).
After a brief stopover at the enchanted Galapagos Islands, the ship slowly gains on its target. The fight of capture is long-drawn, and loses you after a point. But it isn't over even when it is over. A twist in the tale has Aubrey and his men set off on another long quest as the credits roll. An ending that leaves you with a vague sense of incompletion.
Master And Commander is tedious in parts - especially the fights - but it will draw you into an era that had altogether different concerns and ideas. The director draws from the pages of Patrick O'Brian's 20-part series, images that throb with life, and a very real sense of what it must feel like to stay adrift on an ocean of surprises.