Talking Movies

April 15, 2016

Master & Commander: good solid research

Australian director Peter Weir’s 2003 film Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World is noteworthy for being remarkably faithless to the letter of the novel on which it is based, The Far Side of the World, and yet admirably faithful to the spirit of the Aubrey/Maturin series of which that novel is the tenth instalment. Here’s a teaser for my HeadStuff piece on that adaptation.

It is hard not to watch Weir’s film and be struck by how he is picking lines of dialogue and character moments from disparate books all across the series: one deleted scene alludes to the future laudanum addiction of a supporting character. One of the subtlest joys of the movie is the depiction of Jack dining with his officers, only on repeat viewings do you note definitively that all concerned are never entirely sober in any of these scenes; a consequence of the endless series of ‘A glass with you, sir’ toasts O’Brian presents. And so is presented in the best context the infamous weevil joke, “Do you not know that in the service, you must always choose the lesser of two weevils?” This is word for word as O’Brian wrote it, and Weir has Stephen riposte it with a quote from a different book – “He would that make a pun would pick a pocket.” Stephen critiques Jack’s corny wit in The Far Side of the World, with a quote applicable to all the officers across all the books, “Shakespeare’s clowns make quips of that bludgeoning, knock-me-down nature. You have only to add marry, come up, or go to.” And yet the humour of the books is based on solid research. Some of the peevish admirals Jack encounters in the novels recall Lord Chancellor Thurlow’s outburst at a deputation of Nonconformists, recorded in TH White’s The Age of Scandal, “I’m against you, by God. I am for the Established Church, damme! Not that I have any more regard for the Established Church than for any other Church, but because it is established. And if you can get your damned religion established, I’ll be for that too!”

“He will continue to respect historical accuracy and speak of the Royal Navy as it was, making use of contemporary documents” promised author Patrick O’Brian in his introduction to The Far Side of the World. And indeed not many pages pass before a reference is made to the late 18th century concept of ‘bottom’; which TH White defines as not just a precursor of the modern concept of ‘guts’, but also a marker of financial resources and emotional stoicism. But it is in rendering dialogue accurately that O’Brian is a marvel, men of the Napoleonic Wars speak as they would have done, of the things they would have spoken of, and with the gradations of class that would have inflected their dialect; so that when O’Brian describes the intake of the Defenders to the Surprise, the narration becomes coloured by the slang and sentence structure of the able seamen, “A few were striped Guernsey-frocked tarpaulin-hatted kinky-faced red-throated long-swinging-pigtailed men-of-war’s men, and judging by their answers as they were entered in the ship’s books some of these were right sea-lawyers too.” By hewing so closely to O’Brian’s dialogue, Weir adds unusual authenticity to a Hollywood historical action adventure, from the cries of ‘Huzzay’ to Jack’s ‘Thankee, Killick’ to his servant.

Click here to read the full piece.

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January 30, 2015

Son of a Gun

Ewan McGregor rediscovers his charisma as Australia’s most notorious armed robber in what’s probably his best movie since Moulin Rouge!

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Innocuous surfer dude JR (Brenton Thwaites) arrives in jail, where his flowing locks are transformed into a buzz-cut. A pretty boy like him has much to fear on the inside. His cellmate is raped every day by hard-man Dave (Sam Hutchin), and JR’s interest in famous prisoner Brendan Lynch (Ewan McGregor) is frowned upon by Brendan’s protection detail Sterlo (Matt Nable) and Merv (Eddie Baroo). However, after JR reveals a flair for chess Brendan decides to take him under his wing. All he needs is a small favour once JR gets released in a few months… And so begins JR’s initiation into the dangerous world of the Russian mob led by Sam (Jacek Koman). A trip to arms dealer Wilson (Damon Herriman) and a visit from Sam’s much younger girlfriend Tasha (Alicia Vikander) later and JR’s part of a heist…

Son of a Gun is a hard-edged caper movie with a strong romantic undercurrent. Director Julius Avery makes his feature debut working from his own script, with a polish from Master & Commander scribe John Collee, and it’s bursting with confidence. The chemistry between Thwaites and Vikander is palpable from their first meeting and Nigel Bluck’s cinematography of their night-time drive in a fast car is positively swoon-worthy. McGregor’s movie career has never lived up to the promise of his first few features, but this is the first film he’s made in quite some time where he’s giving a damn fine performance in a damn fine movie. His Lynch is charming, but also ruthless at the flick of a switch; combining both in a deliriously jump-started interrogation scene where he doesn’t have the patience to properly torture someone for information.

In a strong ensemble Koman, Moulin Rouge!’s resident narcoleptic, also switches between businessman and thug, while Vikander’s moll is a no-nonsense creation, and Herriman’s arms dealer is as eccentric as you’d expect from Justified’s Dewey Crowe. The only wrong note is Tom Budge as Sam’s nephew Josh – a character scripted purely for structural reasons. When Sam insists that entitled brat Josh be part of the intricate gold heist you set your stop-watch to see how long till he screws it all up. That quibble, and a slightly over-extended finale, aside Avery’s movie rattles along with confidence. There are a number of excellently choreographed set-pieces; a prison break worthy of Mesrine: Killer Instinct, a gloriously worked-out heist of a gold-mine, a terrific car-chase; while the romance between JR and Tasha and a number of double-crosses keep you engaged and second-guessing yourself.

Parker is the most recent Hollywood reference point for this popcorn mix of violence and romance, and McGregor’s sparkling turn outdoes fellow Brit The State’s criminal mastermind, while the romance is far better developed.

3.5/5

December 22, 2012

Long we’ve tossed on the open main…

Last year I wrote about the best way to read Patrick O’Brian’s Master & Commander books, but I’m just about to conclude a macro version of that advice.

Author Patrick O'Brian

I said then that the best way to read the Aubrey/Maturin saga aka Master & Commander was a chapter or two at a time, but spaced out with days between chapters so that the entire (usually) ten chapter novel takes at least two weeks. Only that way can one truly savour the flavour of each chapter, and O’Brian’s hilarious predisposition to writing chapters that deliberately ignore the preceding chapter’s cliff-hanger. I am now one chapter away from finishing Blue at the Mizzen, book 20 of the 20 books in the Master & Commander saga. Yes, O’Brian was working on book 21 when he died, but it’s unfinished and therefore un-canonical and I’ve still to reach a decision on whether I do want to gawk over the great man’s shoulder as he’s writing. For me, this represents home shore at last…

Book 18, The Yellow Admiral, gave a chill indication of how the series might end: the ships paid off, everyone thrown on half-leave, and no more war. And then Boney escaped exile and everyone was greatly relieved… But the shadowy existence of book 21 gives comfort, the characters continue to live on – Maturin will continue to ignore comfort to observe rare beasts, and Aubrey will continue lecturing on navigational mathematics. I first started reading O’Brian’s great epic in January 2004, in a tie-in film edition of books 1 and 10 with Russell Crowe emblazoned on the cover. I’d seen Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World in December 2003 after a disastrous cock-up involving tickets for the extended The Two Towers and been sufficiently intrigued to try my hand at the revered books which had been its source.

So starting in January 2004 and ending in December 2012 I have slowly worked through all 20 books in the series, including book 10 twice; having started with it as it was the alleged source of the plot of the film. Over that time I’ve revisited the film at least 5 times, and each time been struck anew by just how much of O’Brian Weir worked into the texture of the film. Dialogue appears from across the gamut of the series and character moments are equally widely sourced. Even deleted scenes on the DVD reveal a super-subtle allusion to the future addiction to laudanum of a character in the books. And of course the books have been equally coloured by the note-perfect renditions by Crowe and Bettany of Aubrey and Maturin, even if their physiques become increasingly unapt in print.

Saying goodbye to House after 8 years was emotional, but leaving behind O’Brian will be even more wrenching as more imaginative effort always goes into the act of reading than merely viewing. Three cheers for O’Brian – Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah!

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