The Boat That Rocked
A Larky Performance by Kenneth Branagh Fails to Rescue This Creaky Richard Curtis Comedy About a Pirate Radio Station
Tribune Magazine, 5 April 2009
Radicalism, rebellion, rock'n'roll think of the British film-maker best qualified to celebrate these values, and Richard Curtis may be the last name that comes to mind. 'The Boat That Rocked' Curtis's second film as director, following 'Love Actually' celebrates the pirate radio stations that flew the flag for pop in Sixties Britain. Those were the days when seagoing stations such as Radio Caroline seditiously ignited the nation's airwaves, their revolution led by such counter-culture firebrands as Tony Blackburn and Dave Lee Travis.
Curtis's surrogate Caroline is Radio Rock, broadcasting in 1966 from a leaky tub anchored in the North Sea, under the aegis of posh rouι Quentin (Bill Nighy now there's novel casting). The film's main joke is that the sexual revolution, officially banished from Blighty, has a haven on board Radio Rock, but among an almost entirely male crew, the only female being a lesbian cook. Thus, boatloads of eager dolly birds are imported to pleasure the station's unsightly DJs. An especially gruesome sequence has portly but priapic Dave (affable Nick Frost) trying to trick a right little raver (I believe the phrase is, Your Honour) into deflowering Quentin's godson Carl (Tom Sturridge). The tenor is strictly Carry On Up the B-Side; if only Curtis had brought some real seaside-postcard salt to the proceedings.
The film's sour misogyny isn't mitigated by the excuse that Curtis is sending up Sixties attitudes. Carl courts the lovely Marianne (Talulah Riley), who jumps into bed with another the moment his back is turned. Naive Simon (Chris O'Dowd) marries the radiant Elenore (Mad Men's January Jones, looking tolerantly amused), only for the jade to betray him in a callous twist. Women, eh? Can't live with 'em, can't throw 'em overboard. The only female character with any substance is Carl's grandly bohemian mother, a swaggering cameo from Emma Thompson.
It's not just the mean-mindedness of such routines that's galling, but the crunchingly literal soundtrack cues they provide: when Marianne breaks Carl's heart, he mopes to "So Long, Marianne"; Elenore's arrival is heralded by the Turtles' "Elenore". It's a wonder there isn't a Lady Jane on board, or a woman called Ruby who drops by on a Tuesday.
However bland Curtis's comedies are, you can usually rely on his professional polish. But 'The Boat That Rocked' is a creaky coracle-load of vignettes lashed together with improv from a game cast. The characters barely merit the name: there's Thick Kevin who's really thick; a government goon named Twatt who's ... well, a bit of a twat, actually; and a black character who barely has any dialogue (possibly Curtis's little joke about his own eradication of West London's Afro-Caribbean population in Notting Hill, but on second thoughts nah).
As big-daddy DJ "The Duke", a shaggy and avuncular Philip Seymour Hoffman, channelling the raucous radio bark of Emperor Rosko, is mainly required to be morale-boostingly American. The Duke's arch-rival, a lewd-mouthed popinjay, is played by Rhys Ifans, coming over abrasively like a part-time rock star keeping his hand in with a bit of acting.
Luckily, there's enough amiable company on board. Chris O'Dowd provides a dash of genuine emotion, weeping along with Lorraine Ellison's mighty "Stay With Me Baby" the only moment that displays what you think of as the Richard Curtis touch. Rhys Darby stands out as a would-be hipster who's creakingly square beneath his goatee and Carnaby St clobber.
Also good, and uncharacteristically larky, is Kenneth Branagh as the Blue Meanie minister who wants to shut the station down (a part notoriously played in real life by Tony Benn). The role is pure recycled cardboard, but a scowling Branagh perks it up with a hint of Basil Fawlty, a dash of Blakey from On the Buses, and generous echoes of Arthur Lowe.
The Boat That Rocked might have been seaworthy if only Curtis had kept it cheap, cheerful and trim. Pumped up to a 135-minute prestige production, it's a bloated, joyless hulk. The film ends piously with captions reminding us that the pirates struck a blow for the nation's freedom. As illustration, we get a montage of famous album sleeves, to show what followed pop's release from the cultural Bastille of pre-Flower Power Britain everything from Sgt Pepper to Nirvana, Kanye West and Rockferry. To think the Sixties culture wars were fought so that we might one day have ... Duffy? If Richard Curtis ever makes a film about the punk years, I'll be sitting that one out in a rubber dinghy mid-Atlantic.