The Boat That Rocked

The Boat That Rocked


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

One of the most famous scriptwriters in British comedy, Richard Curtis has always been a bit hit and miss, and for the last few years has concentrated mostly on romcoms, to the disappointment of those fans who enjoyed his more irreverent humour.

Though there are threads of romance in this film, it focuses on a different type of love - Curtis' love for music. Specifically, it's a tribute to all those pirate radio stations that kept rock and pop music alive in Britain during the Sixties when the BBC would never dream of broadcasting that sort of thing. It's also a tribute to the fans who loved them - fans like Curtis himself, who has confessed to avoiding church so that he could listen to his favourite music programmes.

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With such a strong feelgood premise, you'd have every right to expect an excellent film (even if you've seen the awful trailer which mangles some genuinely funny moments). Musically, the film is very strong, with a great selection of tunes played throughout, full of life and energy. Curtis' passion comes across strongly and is infectious. However, when it comes to depicting the personal dramas behind the music, The Boat That Rocked enters more troubled waters.

Rock music DJ culture is notoriously sexist, built around male bonding and innuendo. This shouldn't be a problem for a smart film, especially not one that is set in the past anyway, so that the worst excesses can be laughed off as things we know better than to emulate today. Unfortunately a spectacularly misjudged early scene makes it much more difficult to do this. Two male characters set out to deceive a female guest as to which one of them is having sex with her. The joke is supposed to be that one of them is skinny and one fat - simple physical comedy - but in the context of what is essentially a planned rape, albeit one where no malice is involved, this runs into serious problems. There's no evidence that it's being treated ironically. In the screening I attended, a few audience members laughed, but got sharp looks from the people sitting beside them.

Following this, it's hard not to feel uncomfortable about characters we're supposed to like, or about the rest of the film's sexual humour. You're also likely to be more alert to the inconsistencies and unevenness in the script.

However, a strong cast make the best of their material. Philip Seymour Hoffman is wonderful as always as alpha male DJ The Count, squaring up against newcomer rival Gavin (a gleefully OTT Rhys Ifans). Nick Frost has fun as Dave, making the most of the station's groupies, and newcomer Tom Sturridge is endearingly earnest as Carl, an awkward teenager whose mother has mysteriously sent him to join the ship's crew. He seems much the same in person, so it's hard to know if he's just playing himself, but he's the perfect straight man for the others' humour, even if he's a little too pretty for us to seriously believe he thinks girls will never like him.

The weak link in the cast is Kenneth Branagh, whose turn as the government minister seeking to ban the station comes across like a bad Ronnie Barker impersonation. Bill Nighy merely plays himself again as station co-ordinator Quentin, though he's still entertaining enough. But where the battle of wits between the two men ought to generate some tension, all it does is fill in gaps in the wider story. Ironically, what the film captures most effectively is the sense of boredom inevitable on a ship of this sort, with activities constantly invented just to fill in the time.

Towards the end, the film falters still further. It draws heavily on the Radio Caroline story throughout, and when it comes time for that to take a dramatic turn, it's as heavy handed as possible, dragging out the action for far too long to keep audiences gripped and then milking every last ounce of sentiment. Its various charismatic personae become mired in self indulgence and it starts sinking in more ways than one.

A final note of caution - don't ever be tempted to mess around with the North Sea the way these characters do. Despite lines about freezing cold water, they act like they're in the Mediterranean and swim around in conditions that frequently kill. This depletes the tension still further, so that a film that could have made waves ends up feeling merely damp.

Reviewed on: 30 Mar 2009
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The Boat That Rocked packshot
The story of a boat-based pirate radio station which the government tries to ban.
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Read more The Boat That Rocked reviews:

Stephen Carty **1/2
George Williamson **

Director: Richard Curtis

Writer: Richard Curtis

Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Tom Sturridge, Nick Frost, Rhys Ifans, Kenneth Branagh, Chris O'Dowd, Talulah Riley, January Jones, Emma Thompson

Year: 2009

Runtime: 135 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


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