Directed by Peter Weir, starring Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, James D'Arcy, Edward Woodall and Chris Larkin.

Could it just be imagination or is this film, known by some in soundbyte as "the one with the boat", destined to get swallowed up in the Christmas rush? After 'Matrix Revolutions', before 'The Return of the King' and with 'Love Actually' on screens, it might be find hard to find many, outside fans of Patrick O'Brian's books, anxiously awaiting 'Master and Commander...'. But it is a $135m blockbuster, directed by Peter Weir, has Russell Crowe waving a sword again and, had it been shown a few months earlier, would've blown some of the summer duds right out of the water.

Adapted from two novels in O'Brian's 'Aubrey and Maturin' series (hence the lifetime-length title), the film begins in 1805 with the crew of HMS Surprise on the receiving end of an attack by French privateer Acheron. The death toll is high but through the resourcefulness of The Surprise's Captain, Jack Aubrey, and skills of its surgeon, Stephen Maturin (Bettany), the "butcher's bill" is prevented from spiralling even higher.

Once stop gap repairs to The Surprise are completed, the assumption is that it will return to port. Aubrey, however, has other ideas - he wants to hunt down their assailant. The crew seems up for it too, forcing Maturin to question whether the lives of the men he tried so hard to save are now being thrown away on a point of their Captain' pride.

Of course, the ship dominates everything, but it would be wrong to assume that this story is just some effects-driven letdown with nothing below deck. It's a slow, measured film, which favours character over action, thus ensuring that the - sometimes strained - friendship between Aubrey and Maturin is always credible.

Those who have spent their time soaking up life with the heroes through O'Brian's books mightn't be pleased with changes Weir has made (for instance, in the book 'Far Side of the World' the duo are up against an American ship in 1812, not a French one in 1805). But the sign that he's done more right than wrong is that some newcomers will be pushed towards the novels to find out what the hardcore fans are talking about.

Crowe and Bettany previously worked together on 'A Beautiful Mind' and their one-on-one scenes spark as Aubrey really does push the boat out to catch the Acheron. And, full credit to Weir, he doesn't stretch the final showdown for 30 bloodsoaked minutes, thereby doing justice to the drama and adding further power to the battle against the elements preceding it.

A real contender for a clutch of technical Oscars; the more high profile gongs are another matter.

Harry Guerin