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Non-Review Review: The Boat That Rocked

This is a movie that ends with a rendition of the classic Bowie pop number Let’s Dance, because it couldn’t fit it anywhere in its linear narrative amid all the time-specific pop and rock tunes. The movie has quite a bit in common with that most financially successful of songs from the Thin White Duke. It’s light, it’s breezy and it’s catchy, with just a hint of some extra darkness that is rarely found among its light and fluff compatriots. It’s also the work of an intensely talented artist (and, indeed, artists) who probably should be doing more innovative and important work, but we almost can’t blame them because it’s so much fun. Almost.

Quite a board walk...

Quite a board walk...

If you’ve seen one Richard Curtis film, you’ve seen pretty much them all. Okay, it isn’t quite that bad, but you get the idea. The man has a unique approach to blending his point with his own style of humour. You either “get it” or you don’t. His films haven’t managed to capture the lightening-in-a-bottle that hit his Blackadder concept four times, but they are generally pleasantly diverting and possess an almost niave charm about them. That you can describe a film with so much bed-hopping and romantic betrayals as The Boat That Rocked as niave says something about the skill and charm of Curtis’ writing.

The movie uses the infamous ‘pirate’ radio stations of the late 1960s as a jumping-board for Curtis’ thoughts on how music can bring joy to people’s lives and how much time governments and authority figures spend torpedoing ultimately harmless fun. Of course, this is the 1960s as invisaged by Richard Curtis. My dad assures me that there’s no way anyone who talked like that would have been allowed on the air, even on pirate radio (and I’m not talking about a delightful f-word sequence near the start of the film here). But this isn’t a movie for historical accuracy, it’s a story of a place that never really existed outside the retrospective fantasies of anyone who has stuck on a Rolling Stones album and lost themselve in The Kinks.

The leads are generally satisfactory. They seem to be having great fun, as if taking time off from ‘important’ films. That is by no means an insult – come the end of awards season even I am somewhat fatigued of prestigious drama. The characters aren’t really characters, more quirks that live in technicolour clothes. The performers are drawn from a wide range of fields – Rhys Ifans known for trying his hand at gritty indie, Phillip Seymour Hoffman as an Oscar darling, Kenneth Branagh is the embodiment of classic British drama – and they all show a great sense of comic timing and, even rarer, a great sense of chemistry. You get the sense that living on the boat with these giant tics and quirks might be a fascinating experience, and as lively as the film suggests.

I’ve been hankering to say this for a while, and this review offers the perfect opportunity to get it off my chest: Hollywood or Britain (or anyone), give Bill Nighy something to do. The man is an imensely talented actor who has been wandering aimlessly for some time now. He turns in the film’s best performance as the ring master on this three-ring circus (though some credit must be given to Branagh for just being awesomely bureacratic as the government official out to stop him), but he’s not really given anything to work with. He gets a few nice scenes here and there, but the film is primarily about how these guys can’t be kept in line – thus making his hard work seem completely pointless. Still, he has the best delivery of any actor appearing in the film, despite not really having the best lines. In a lead role, I can’t imagine how incredible he could be.

The film works best as a fantasy (which it is). None of the characters take offense to other characters bedding the objects of their affection (one seems upset, but ultimately gets over it in less than week) and the film offers a worryingly immature attitude to sex (one sequence has a romantic partner turn out the lights so he can swap places with the virgin waiting in the bathroom, nevermind that the woman in question has never met her soon-to-be-lover). It’s interesting that the film never really holds any of the characters to task for their actions, but perhaps I’m dwelling too much on a trivial film. I don’t want to seem like Captain Buzzkill (Branagh does that so much better than I can), but the film’s attitude towards sex is slightly troubling – as does it’s “no girls allowed but lesbians” logic that ties the boys-own crew together. They don’t have to stop enjoying what they do, but maybe growing up wouldn’t be a bad thing?

It does tend to levitate a bit much towards the sacchrine, but that is a weakness of most of Curtis’ work. He bangs the “music lovers just wanna have fun” drum a little bit load, but it’s okay because it’s a fairly unobjectionable statement, at least these days. Still, for all the light fare that Curtis seems to want to produce here, it seems odd that he can’t definitively link sound and vision. He makes several notable attempts to tie the movie’s expectedly fantastic soundtrack to the visuals, but nothing makes an impression, despite the fun that everyone is having and the kicking tunes that Curtis has at his disposal – a more recent movie (500) Days of Summer managed to do more with less when it came to sound and vision.

Ultimately, the movie is light and bubbly fare that is generally pleasant. It’s a nice entry in the ever expanding nostalgic back catalogue, but I doubt it will manage the staying power of any of its soundtrack.


The Boat That Rocked is directed by Richard Curtis (Love, Actually, Blackadder) and stars Bill Nighy (Pirates of the Carribean: At Worlds’ End, State of Play), Phillip Seymour Hoffman (Doubt, Mission Impossible III), Nick Frost (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead), Kenneth Branagh (Hamlet, Frankenstein), Emma Thompson (I Am Legend, Much Ado About Nothing), Gemma Arterton (Quantum of Solice, St. Trinian’s) and Rhys Ifans (Twin Town, Notting Hill). It was released in the UK and Ireland on 1st April 2009 and won’t be released in the States until 13th November 2009.

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