This seagoing drama puts a viewer so convincingly in the middle of the action on board a British warship in 1805 that you'll swear you can feel the salt spray. The rousing story of how Capt. Jack Aubrey (Crowe), commander of the HMS Surprise, and his crew determinedly pursue a larger, faster, French enemy vessel around Cape Horn is Hollywood filmmaking at its smartest and most satisfying.
Fans of nautical novelist Patrick O'Brian are likely to be enraptured by Master and Commander, given that it has been so adroitly adapted by director-cowriter Peter Weir (The Truman Show) from the 1st and 10th books of O'Brian's 20-volume series. Let me stress, though, that having devoured the books isn't a prerequisite for enjoying the film and its up-close look at what officers and sailors ate, where they slept and how ship-to-ship combat was conducted during the Napoleonic Wars.
At the heart of both the novels and M&C is the warm but occasionally contentious friendship between Captain Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin (Bettany), the ship's sawbones. The captain is a man of action and Maturin a more introspective sort, but each is capable of moving beyond type to surprise the other (and us). And both do much to earn, and keep, the respect of the ship's crew.
Crowe again proves he is that rarity: a major movie star who can actually act. No firebrand, his Captain Aubrey shoulders the heavy mantle of leadership with a hard-won knowledge of its weight. Bettany, if less charismatic, is equally effective. (PG-13)