Curtis’ Sit-com Shaking Pirate Ship Fails to Shiver Timbers

Tribune Magazine, 16 April 2009
By Patrick Mulcahy

At heart, Richard Curtis, in financial terms the most successful British screenwriter currently working (even if he was born in New Zealand), is a sit-com writer. His second film as writer-director, The Boat That Rocked, is a floating situation comedy about a group of “pirate” DJs broadcasting from the North Sea while a repressed politician (Kenneth Branagh) plots to put an end to their so-called vulgar music. This music enjoyed by a listening public – nurses, school kids, students – frequently shown in cutaways includes songs by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and The Seekers – yes, The Seekers. One DJ from the fictitious Radio Rock even congratulates himself for playing two Seekers records back to back and you think: “How subversive”.

Alas, there are no big laughs in the movie because the DJs never take on authority directly. It is set in 1966 and, aside from one reference to Vietnam, there is no sense of rock music being born out of protest. Music is simply a catalyst for expressing sexual longing. One of the more overweight DJs, Dave (Nick Frost) – not so much rockabilly as rockabelly – is presented as a babe magnet. He is generous with it and in an odd set piece, he agrees to switch places with the owner’s virginal godson, Carl (Tom Sturridge) so that the latter can enjoy sex with a female visitor to the boat. After a lengthy set-up, the scene goes nowhere and is typical of the film: overlong, unfunny and less than the sum of its parts.

Nominally, the star is Philip Seymour Hoffman, who coasts through his role as self-styled rule-breaker The Count. His performance is not particularly nuanced but you feel for the actor in a vertigo-inducing set piece where The Count races rival DJ, Gavin (Rhys Ifans) up the ship’s tall mast. Curtis knows that his DJ characters are not real subversives. At one point, the F word is broadcast over the airwaves in spite of the station owner’s protest but there is no direct consequence. The limit of free love is tested when an American (January Jones) marries one DJ so she can have an affair with another. Such tensions undermine the film’s thesis that rock music is good, and sexual repression is bad. Curtis cannot maintain any real dramatic tension until the film goes all Titanic at the end. Even then, you know he does not mean it.

As well as under-using Hoffman, Curtis serves Kenneth Branagh poorly. At one point, Branagh’s character swears as much as the DJs he despises. At another, he reads a Christmas cracker joke, remarks: “Oh yes, that is funny” but does not smile. Curtis puts Branagh in the same film as Emma Thompson, who has a brief cameo for the first time since Much Ado About Nothing in 1993, but the pair do not share the screen together. This is a shame, since one of the most memorable skits from Thompson’s short-lived television sketch show featured Branagh sorting through his record collection in front of her: a moment more poignant than any rendered here.

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