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The Boat That Rocked – set sail or stay in port?

Q: Why are pirates called pirates?
A: Because they “Arrrrrrrrrrrrrrre”!
That, my friends, is one of my favourite jokes. I’m fully aware that this may undermine any right I have to sit in judgement of this comedy film, but I don’t care… 

And I intend to make things even worse by occasionally using nautical and/or 1960’s phrases throughout the rest of this review where ordinary words and references would probably do just as well. If you don’t like it ye can go take a walk off the nearest – er – groovy mizzen. Far out, ye salty lubbers.

Or words to that effect.

Storytelling: 3/5

The year is 1964. It’s the ruddy 60’s; a time, as we’re led to believe by our chronologically-senior contemporaries, of free love, rebellion, and general grooviness. Pop music was in its infancy, a growing force that would one day dominate popular culture but which, in those halcyon days of yore, was an underground, illicit vice.

With British radio stations of the era still catering to the middle-of–the-road, woolly sweater-wearing mainstream, champions of this new art form were forced to take to the high seas, broadcasting their happening sounds to the grateful masses from aboard customised fishing trawlers pitching away merrily in international waters.

They were pirates, of a sort, and the people loved them.

It’s a real piece of British cultural history, and it is into this wonderful world that we are plunged in The Boat That Rocked. We meet Carl (Tom Sturridge), a young lad expelled from his cushy private school and sent to be “straightened out” by his mother aboard one such vessel: ‘Radio Rock’, an amalgamated metaphor for the likes of Radio Caroline and Swingin’ Radio London.

Carl meets a rag-tag crew of misfits, led by his Godfather Quentin (Bill Nighy), The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and egomaniac Gavin (Rhys Ifans). Far from experiencing a bracing need to straighten up and fly right, Carl embraces the nihilistic ‘60’s lifestyle of booze, drugs, sex and, probably, more sex.

Not long after his arrival, however, the safe little world of Radio Rock comes under threat from the evil “freedom hating” government in the shape of Kenneth Branagh and Jack Davenport. The times, they are a-changin’, and the stage is set for drama and, hopefully, a bit of comedy too.

For writer, director, and British comedy legend Richard Curtis (Four Weddings And A Funeral, Notting Hill), this movie represents a refreshing departure from his usual cosy milieu. Gone is the stammeringly charming, “isn’t love lovely” feel, replaced by an excited celebration of a tumultuous time. The cast clearly enjoy themselves immensely, creating a lively ensemble of mostly one-dimensional characters, and there’s some great moments throughout, usually borne out of the interaction between them.

This being a Curtis movie, there’s the usual, ever so slightly patronising nod to the pressures of political correctness (i.e. a lesbian crew member), but this is balanced out by the film’s general portrayal of women as Carry On-esque tarts and screaming teens. Even Stevens, I suppose.

But for all its great ensemble acting, undeniably big heart and general likeability, The Boat That Rocked seems lacking, and the area in which it lacks most is the area in which I think we’d all expect the most: laughs. With a cast as strong as this you’d expect some belly-laugh moments, some real uproarious crowd pleasing gems, but they never come. Not once in its entire, over-inflated two hours and 15 minutes does this film move up out of second gear, and it’s a real shame.

So it’s fun, its well meaning and warm, but what we needed from Curtis here was a sharp lurch to starboard, a big departure from his previous course, but instead we get slight tack in a new direction, and it just doesn’t quite come off.

Video: 4/5

I can’t help but feel that, in terms of its appearance, more could have been made of this film’s roots.

Pirate radio was an escape for the youth of the 60’s, a great liberating trailblazer of rock and roll, but the overall impression we get is one of safety. Curtis uses dusky brown, green and beige colours to evoke the lingering post-war austerity of the era, and these come through very well, lending a sense of authenticity to what is otherwise a rather rose-tinted view of the time, but there’s really nothing out-there, devil-may-care or piratical about the film’s look and feel. An opportunity missed, perhaps.

There are some positive points to be scored here, though. Presented for our delectation in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, in glorious 1080p, The Boat That Rocked has been given a really rather lovely transfer. There’s minimal grain and some nice clear contrast, as well as crisp detail on close-ups, so you’re definitely getting your money’s worth on the old HD front.

A mild disappointment in terms of style, but it’ll look great on your plasma, so it’s swings and roundabouts, really.

Audio: 4/5

First thing to note is, obviously, the soundtrack. Some classics of the era on here, from the Seekers to the Stones, which will have you tapping along and getting into the groove of life aboard a pirate radio vessel. They’re well mixed, well used, and well judged.

It’s all delivered to your expectant lugholes via a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track with minimum pop and hiss. Everything is crisp, rich and clear as a bell. Admittedly, there’s nothing about the sound on this movie that’ll make your speakers quake, but that’s not to say that this isn’t a very subtly mixed, well designed piece of audio work.

Two thumbs up.

Package: 2/5

So we’ve got a very standard BR box going on here, with a cover design straight off the movie posters and nothing much else.

Inside you’ll find a single disc containing the main feature, plus a rather measly offering of a feature commentary, deleted scenes and some short making-of featurettes.

The deleted scenes are fairly substantial, clocking up around three quarters of an hour’s worth of additional footage. The main problem with this is that, when the main feature itself has already outstayed it’s welcome, the last thing you’re going to want to do is sit through even more of the same.

Add to this the featurettes, which are notable only for their brevity, and you’re basically left with the feature commentary, which is at least worth a listen. On the whole, though, a really rather poor show.

Bias:

I’m in two minds about Richard Curtis.

On the one hand, as a comedy fan, I worship the very ground the man walks on, being as he is the creator of one of the all-time greatest comedy series ever made, Black Adder. You just can’t mess with that. The man could write nothing but dirty limericks for the rest of his career and I’d still think he was a genius just for having given birth to such unadulterated comedy gold.

On the other hand, we’ve got Richard Curtis the filmmaker, the man responsible for a movie which makes me want to literally, physically eat my own face whenever I even do so much as think about it: the cringe-inducingly twee Notting Hill.

It’s very difficult to reconcile these two images, and I think I was rather hoping that The Boat That Rocked would help in some way, seeing as it’s a film, but it’s not a romcom. I thought maybe, just maybe, we’d get something closer to Curtis at his best.

But to no avail.

It could’ve been worse, of course. We could’ve ended up with Hugh Grant bumbling around off the coast of England trying to learn how to speak “jive” or some such horrendousness, whilst simultaneously attempting to squire some irritatingly articulate rent-a-Yank who has inexplicably decided to go for a swim near his yacht.

Thankfully we didn’t get that film, we got this one, so I guess in that sense it’s a bit of a relief.

Verdict: 3/5 – “RENT”

First published Oct 21, 2009 on BlurayDaily.com