How do you narrow down a career like Russell Crowe's? Even those who love to hate him (and there are so, so many) have to admit the guy isn't an acting slouch. Any one of his performances is a candidate for his best – the terrifying Hando of Romper Stomper, the decaying Jeffery Wigand in The Insider, the troubled Bud White of L.A. Confidential, the cruel and charismatic Ben Wade of 3:10 to Yuma, or the sad triumphs of Jim Braddock or John Nash in Cinderella Man and A Beautiful Mind. You can make a solid case for any one of them – except, perhaps, the Gladiator that earned him that perfunctory gold statue. Maximus is an iconic role, but he's not Crowe's best.
What is? Well, I'm torn with personal bias -- if you know me, you know how deeply I love L.A. Confidential -- but I'm going to have to give it to another favorite: Captain Jack Aubrey of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.
We know Crowe can play intense. His characters often brood and seethe, they're sneering and glib, and they can break chairs and skulls with equal ease. His skill has often been making brutal men into poets. Maximus can spin tales of his home, Wade can calmly sketch pretty things after gunning men down, and White can see beyond Lynn Bracken's peek-a-boo hairstyle. But what is rarer in Crowe's filmography is warmth, compassion and humor. In many ways, Aubrey is still that quintessential Crowe role – a man of steel who can scowl and slaughter as well as Maximus or Robin Hood – but it's the wit and kindness of Aubrey that makes the difference.
Aubrey's a man of his unrelenting time and profession. He doesn't flinch from flogging a man for failing to salute, for cutting a man loose to drown in a storm, or from pushing the men of the HMS Surprise to the limits of human endurance. His loyalty to the British Navy is without question, and he visibly bristles when any man (even his best friend, Stephen Maturin) dares criticize it. It should be difficult to like a man that is so devoted to king and country, who barks "Subject to the requirement of the service!" as if it doesn't mean disappointment, blood, and death.
But you like Aubrey and you admire him. If you have to serve with the British Navy – and Peter Weir makes no bones about how awful 18th century duty was – you want a captain like him. He may flog you for rudeness, he may sail you through hell and back, but he'll never deny you grog or parrots. If he's forced to choose between the ship and one unlucky sailor, he'll choose the ship, but he'll sever that lifeline himself, and feel every blow of that axe against the deck. He never hides the anguish in his eyes, and even takes a suicide to heart. By doing so, he gently guides every man-jack of the Surprise into recognizing his own personal demons.
Aubrey believes in doing one's duty, but he's not a tyrant. He's affable enough to appreciate classical music, a good dessert, or a bad pun. (The "lesser of two weevils" joke runs the length of Patrick O'Brian's series, as it runs through the movie.) He's gentle enough to stop by the ship's surgery, and give a biography of Lord Horatio Nelson to the maimed young midshipman, Blakeney. Modern Americans might see this as a paltry gesture – what a typical present from a hardened sea captain – but it's touching when you know that Lord Nelson achieved his godly naval reputation despite being short an arm. (He lost it in a similar accident, too. Everyone take a moment to appreciate modern medicine, or you too may have lost a limb to gangrene!) We might also see Aubrey's brusque "You should read the book!" to young Blakeney's inquiries as the sign of an stiff-upper lipped ass.
But Aubrey is genuinely upset by the bloody and severe price of duty. In that moment, he fears he's no Nelson, and that his failures lead to unnecessary sacrifice. He's unable to speak more because he's choked up. Aubrey can't let young Blakeney see the chink in his armor. That's for the midshipman's sake as well as his own. Dignity is a big part of this world, and it's not always about maintaining your own, but bolstering that of your fellow officer, even if he's no more than a boy.
It's subtle touches like these that make Crowe's performance so beautiful. Despite his staunch rules and regulations, this is a man of flaws and doubts who can admit when he's wrong, and who can bend before everyone around him breaks. There's a thousand ways the bluster and quips could have been run into caricature, but Crowe keeps this frigate of a man firmly grounded in reality. There's more emphasis on plucking the violin than unleashing hell. Some may not be as entertained, but the thoughtful can come away much more impressed. Aubrey isn't a man who ends up more than a footnote in the history books, but he's a man you're glad to know for an hour or two. Considering few can (or want to) say that about the tempestuous persona of Crowe, I think that's what makes Aubrey his best role to date.