One of my favorite moments in Master and Commander is probably 2 seconds long. And it involves James D’Arcy who gives one of my favorite performances in the film, as 1st Lieutenant Tom Pullings. It’s my favorite kind of acting: understated, powerful, specific – NOT the lead – and absolutely the success of the film depends on guys like James D’Arcy (even more so than Russell Crowe) playing his part and playing it well. The old Hollywood studio system was buoyed up by character actors – who made the stars (who were already awesome) look even better. D’Arcy, as Pullings, puts Crowe’s power as an actor into sharp relief. Nobody acts alone. You need your cast members to step up to the plate as well. Master and Commander is not a soliloquy. Everyone in the film is magnificent – but James D’Arcy, with his not so flashy part, is my favorite. And it’s not just because the dude is smokin’ hot.
In the first battle scene of the film, when they encounter The Acheron – and Aubrey realizes they will have to outrun the ship in order to have a fighting chance – the two men stand on the deck, looking out at the man o’ war bearing down on them. Pullings waits for his orders. Will they stay and fight? What is next?
Aubrey turns, with a mischievous grin, and says, “Put us in that fog, Tom” and stalks away.
Pullings stares out at the Acheron for a second, turns – and watches Aubrey walk off, the realization dawning on him of the brilliance of the plan. And his face transforms. From a sort of harassed type of war-moment focus, to a relaxed excited grin.
I remember when I first saw the film. I remember how the moment landed with me. Yes, the film was exciting up to that point. I love Peter Weir, in particular … but it was that one moment – the “Put us in that fog, Tom” command – and James D’Arcy’s subtle transformation of expression – when the movie really GOT me. It still does. Power in acting does not have to be grandiose, loud, or full of gestures. It can be as simple as a face changing from anxiety to excitement.
Kudos to Mr. D’Arcy.