Throw together a cast of decent, proven television comedy actors headed up by movie legends Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy and the stupendous Philip Seymour Hoffman, a simple premise and a storming soundtrack and what do you get? A film that somehow manages to be even more ponderous and unstructured than Love Actually.
As a huge fan of Curtis’ body of television work – I’m the bloke that actually liked Mr Bean, even the spin-off big screen films – it pains me to report that this is easily his least effective work with a sprawling narrative that seemingly doesn’t know where it’s going or even where it’s been before. It’s far too long at over two hours and, despite the best efforts of the cast – Seymour Hoffman in particular is fantastic whenever he’s on screen, even though there is a feeling he’s going through the motions – the overriding feeling is that they all had a far better time making the film than you have watching it.
The crux of the plot is solid enough, charting the rise of pirate radio stations and the government’s attempts to close them all down. Curtis achieves this by following one station in particular, the fictional Radio Rock that is clearly loosely based on Radio Caroline and the characters on board are also loosely based on radio presenters from days gone by: Blackburn, Peel, Radio Caroline’s US disc jockey Emperor Rosko (Hoffman’s character) and so on.
That said, Curtis himself has admitted that the film isn’t intended to be an accurate depiction of the story of offshore broadcasting in the UK, rather it’s inspired and influenced by that while remaining a piece of entertainment. With that in mind, if you are familiar with the tale of pirate broadcasting, don’t come into this film expecting all the elements to be present and correct.
Not that it really matters, as The Boat That Rocked still holds an entertaining premise of watching Radio Rock’s attempts to escape the law and stay afloat. Shame, then, that this premise is handled in such a haphazard and, frankly, lazy manner. Whoever handled the editing here deserves a firm slap on the wrist as the back and forth criss-crossing of stories simply doesn’t work, the overall effect being that here is a collection of sketches rather than a story as a whole.
So we have the story of radio boss Quentin and his relationship (is he the daddy?) with newcomer to the ship, Carl. We have the tale of Hoffman’s The Count and his battle with Rhys Ifans’ Gavin, ending with a very dull battle of chicken atop the boat mast.
We also have brief tales of DJ Simon’s marriage and subsequent break-up and Carl’s lost virginity. The problem being that, briefly entertaining though these stories might be, (many of them aren’t by the way), they don’t slot together because of a lack of focus.
That focus is seemingly given to Carl as we’re supposed to see the boat through his eyes, but it doesn’t work, partly down to a dull performance by Tom Sturridge and partly because the sheer number of stories competing for screentime is far too vast. This is most evident in a rushed sequence of events that begins with the arrival of Emma Thompson as his mum and ending in Carl finding out who his real father is. It’s treated with such a blasé attitude by the film – Thompson is apparently only present so audiences can smile along with Curtis that he’s managed to nab a cameo from the great lady – that you end up not caring. That’s not something you can say about most Curtis films.
If there is anything to enjoy from the film other than the brilliant soundtrack – this is an ode to rock and roll, after all – then it’s the performances, which are largely excellent. Credit in particular goes to Nick Frost and The IT Crowd‘s Chris O’Dowd for delivering the laughs among such a cluttered comedic cast, O’Dowd also providing the film with any heart whatsoever. Hoffman is, as I’ve said earlier, always worth watching as is Nighy, although he is a bit old for the rock gestures and posturing.
With such a huge, ensemble cast there are bound to be casualties and in this case it’s Katherine Parkinson (also from The IT Crowd) who’s given a thankless role as the ship’s lesbian and Flight Of The Conchords‘ Rhys Darby who seems to be playing Murray Hewitt all over again.
Good performances cannot save the sprawling script, however, a script that contains some really very poor jokes, indeed. I really do feel for Branagh and Jack Davenport, having to play out scene after scene attempting to elicit any comedy from the fact that Davenport’s character is called Twatt. Yes, I know Blackadder had Captain Darling, but that was nestled in amongst several other witty humorisms. The Twatt joke here really isn’t. “Well done, Twatt,” cries Branagh. And I just shook my head and wondered how it had come to this.
As an ode to the music that’s still alive and well today, and as a celebration of some fantastic comedic and acting talent, The Boat That Rocked has its moments. As a DVD purchase, however, it’s an unsatisfying, ponderous and muddled film that suggests Curtis should stick to either writing or directing and not both.
Oh, and spend more time in the editing suite.
Extras consist of a director’s commentary and a set of deleted scenes, over half an hour of them. Some of the scenes work better than others, although considering the film could have done with 30 minutes chopping off anyway, this adds further fuel to the fire that the filming process needed to be on a tighter leash.
The commentary is much better, with contributions from Frost and O’Dowd and Curtis himself which is a good listen – Frost’s contributions to the Spaced DVD commentaries were also worthwhile – although it is a little banterish on occasions instead of insightful. Still, considering it’s a two-hour commentary, it does manage to hold interest throughout that time.
The Boat That Rocked is out now.