Thoroughly engaging sea yarn based on the novels by the late Patrick O'Brian (the script is adapted from two separate books, Master and Commander and The Far Side of the World, hence the unwieldy title), about the crew of the H.M.S. Surprise, a British naval ship fighting the French in 1805, at the height of the Napoleonic Wars.
Much more than just a ships-and-cannons sort of affair, Master and Commander is really about the enduring friendship of the ship's captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe, well-cast) and the ship's doctor Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany, ditto), two men of distinctly different mindsets - Aubrey with his belligerence and Maturin with his scientific withdrawal - who bond over their shared determination.
As painstakingly researched as O'Brian's books, and almost as plotless, Master and Commander is an incredibly authentic re-creation of the period, giving you a you-are-there feeling of life on the high seas 200 years ago, with all of its perils, its camaraderie, and, most refreshingly, its downtime. People expecting wall-to-wall thrills may squirm during the long, slow period between the opening and closing battle scenes, but those with patience - and a love for character and detail - will be richly rewarded.
This is not so much a great film as it is great cinematic craftsmanship, but the dependable Peter Weir provides strong, unselfconscious direction, and there isn't a false note in the entire 2+ hour runtime.