I’d heard a good deal about this movie from a friend of mine who was of old Yankee blood and a sailor. I finally got a chance to see it last week.
(Spoiler Alert – Skip down to last paragraph to avoid spoilers and read recommendation)
The story follows the adventures of the crew of the HMS Surprise during the Napoleonic Wars as its captain, Jack Aubrey, (played by Russell Crowe) chases a French privateer, the heavy frigate Acheron, from the coastal waters of Brazil, around the Cape Horn and into the tropical waters of the Pacific.
Because the Acheron has a much more substantial hull the Surprise is heavily damaged during their first engagement off Brazil while the Acheron is virtually undamaged. Aubrey foregoes a lengthy refitting in port and instead makes hasty repairs at sea while doing his best to pursue the Acheron. But because of the Acheron’s superior battle capability it becomes a cat and mouse game where the Surprise is sometimes the pursued.
And while all this goes on, we meet the rest of the crew. The ship’s surgeon, Stephen Maturin is played by Paul Bettany. The doctor not only can saw off a midshipman’s arm as needed but he’s also the captain’s accompanist in their musical string duo. I kid you not. The crew and the officers have a complicated relationship with strict discipline and primitive superstition both playing a part.
Eventually through luck and guile Aubrey engineers the attack on the Acheron and we get an epic sea battle with the Surprise’s crew boarding the Acheron. And the Surprise is victorious and captain and crew prepare for the business of bringing the captured Acheron to port.
So, what’s the story with this movie? Why do some people rave about it? The first thing I noticed was that the movie successfully captured the claustrophobic crowdedness of these sailing ships. You can feel the lack of air in the hold where the crew sleeps cheek to jowl. It feels real. Less like Hollywood’s version of the 19th century English navy. Right down to some of the midshipman being essentially boys of twelve years or so. Then there’s Russell Crowe’s portrayal of Aubrey. Crowe is a damn good actor. He makes the captain a real figure. You can believe in him. And Aubrey and Maturin’s friendship and clashes also ring true. The man of action and the man of science confronting their conflicting priorities as best they can. And lastly, the battle scenes are very well done and highly exciting. The only part of the story that I had trouble with was the final battle. The boarding scene was intentionally chaotic. Such an event would have to be. But honestly at many points I couldn’t tell which side was doing what to whom. It didn’t ruin the film but I thought it could have been a little less indecipherable. I enjoyed the movie and would recommend it to lovers of adventure and students of history.