Film review: The Boat that Rocked

Scotland on Sunday, 29 March 2009

Just as in the 18th century, when the country was split between Whigs and Tories, now audiences stand divided between those who think Richard Curtis may be the Milton of middle-class comedy and those who think his films are embarrassing circuses where just about everyone has to act the clown. However, since I live in the rotten borough of journalism, I can cast my vote twice once in each ballot box. I like the idea of gentle Ealing-ish comedies that we can flog to Americans, boosting our balance of trade and painting Britain as an optimistic, sunny, self-deprecating place. On the other hand, there's 'The Boat That Rocked'; a truly Titanic film, in the sense that it is a disappointingly wretched thing that takes ages to sink from sight.

The plot of this leaky vessel begins with 17-year-old Carl (Tom Sturridge, who must be making Hugh Dancy and Rupert Friend wonder if any of their DNA is missing), expelled from school for smoking and airily dispatched by his mum (Emma Thompson) to work for his swinging uncle (Bill Nighy), who runs a pirate radio station from a rustbucket in the North Sea. His huge motley crew of DJs includes Philip Seymour Hoffman as The Count, who sounds like Emperor Rosko, is as hairy as Dave Lee Travis but has the anarchic spirit of Kenny Everett, while Chris O'Dowd seems to be modelled on a gormless Tony Blackburn minus Tone's teenybopper handsomeness. Who knows who Rhys Ifans is based on, but I'm thinking maybe Ali Bongo, since he magically appears to be able to broadcast without opening and shutting the faders on his desk.

In its lighthearted fashion, 'The Boat That Rocked' invites us to accept a number of radical notions. Among them are that a Bambi-eyed, spot-free teen with a groovy job might find it difficult to get a girlfriend. And when Carl eventually snares a potential girlfriend she abandons his bed halfway through to sleep with tubby DJ Nick Frost instead. Tom for Nick? I don't think so. Still, these are the conceits the film wants you to take on board that cute, well-spoken Tom is a regular-guy loser and that everyone tuned in to pirate radio.

And I do mean everyone. Admittedly, the best thing about 'The Boat That Rocked' is the music being broadcast by Radio Rock, but surely it's only in Curtisworld that codgers tune in and waltz to the Kinks, nurses giggle over the broadcast use of a four-letter word, and even nuns cadge a crafty earful of Rhys Ifans unzipping his fly. These montages bother me because if everyone in Britain was listening to unregulated radio, why doesn't anyone protest when killjoy minister Kenneth Branagh wants to shut it down? And if it's so popular, why does there seem to be only one pirate radio station? And as a side note from someone who can't get Radio Scotland in the south side of her house: how come everyone manages to get such a terrific reception? Curtis describes his film as a love letter to pirate radio, but 'The Boat That Rocked' is to the Radio Caroline story what Strike! was to the miners' dispute.

None of this would matter if the film was sharply edited and briskly paced, or if you had the sense that the plot was heading anywhere. Instead, 'The Boat That Rocked' has a lot of dead air: 129 minutes is long for a comedy film, and since there's no effort to make you care about the characters or keep the plot moving, your attention wanders whenever the jokes wobble and fall down, or when the comedy vein turns varicose.

At the Home Office Branagh has a sidekick whose name is Twatt. You may recall that in 'Blackadder Goes Forth', Curtis and Ben Elton managed to get laughs out of a captain called Darling, but there isn't one good laugh to be had at the expense of Mr Twatt, or indeed the HO's other new female recruit, Miss Clitt. Really Richard: you Berkk.


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