Sinking fast at a cinema near you…
Fifteen years after its release, it’s fashionable to knock Four Weddings and a Funeral. However, for all sorts of reasons, it’s still a key British film of the last two decades – and for me one that sustained repeat viewings. And, for good or ill, Richard Curtis has become a major force in the industry in the last decade and a half, making films that play to large audiences overseas as well as in the UK. However, with The Boat That Rocked he shows every sign of coming unstuck.
You have to look to a figure not usually overshadowed, namely the director. At first, Curtis – and his producers – hired some fine directors, Mike Newell on Four Weddings and Roger Michell on Notting Hill. Curtis has publicly credited Newell for making Four Weddings into an properly integrated film rather than the series of sketches that was his original script. It’s a pity that he seems to have ignored his own advice. With Love, Actually he stepped into the director’s chair. That film was widely knocked. It certainly has its faults: it’s overlong and its tone is all over the place. But on the other hand it remains watchable and reasonably amusing, with good performances from Bill Nighy and Emma Thompson in particular. The latter has one scene which is so powerful it threatens to tear the film apart.
So, The Boat That Rocked. Again Curtis directs from his own script. It’s 1966. With the BBC broadcasting a minimum of pop music, pirate stations in offshore boats broadcast it around the clock. The British government’s response is to pass legislation outlawing the pirates. The film centres on one such station, Radio Rock, based in international waters in the North Sea.
The Boat That Rocked is an ensemble piece. Curtis introduces himself to his cast via a young innocent, Carl (Tom Sturridge). We meet the Emperor Rosko-like Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the louche Gavin (Rhys Ifans), corpulent lothario Dave (Nick Frost), station boss Quentin, Carl’s uncle (Bill Nighy) and ship’s cook Felicity (Katherine Parkinson). Oh and by the way, she’s a lesbian. I somehow doubt she would be quite so open, let alone so casually accepted, in 1966: not the first time Curtis tends to smooth out and sanitise things that don’t fit into his generally sunny world view. (He was heavily criticised for setting a film in Notting Hill and not showing a single non-white face on screen.) Period flavour? What period flavour?
Of the cast, Philip Seymour Hoffman has real presence, but he’s the only one who is making an effort. The rest of a strong cast simply coast, not helped by the fact that they are playing single characteristics rather than characters. Emma Thompson turns up briefly as Carl’s mother, and Gemma Arterton as a foreign dollybird lured on board ship.
Quality control has slipped badly. The script is lazy, offering up characteristics instead of characters, and with an unattractive amount of laddishness having crept in. (That at least could be said to be truer of the time when this is set, but I suspect that’s accidental.) We’re meant to find character names like Twatt automatically hilarious. It doesn’t help that the film is particularly unattractive to look at. This has to be one of the worst-directed major releases I’ve seen in a long time, with Curtis attempting an Altman-like pan-and-zoom-long-take technique in many scenes. It wouldn’t matter quite so much if there were some good jokes and one-liners, but again and again they’re done in by poor comic timing. Needless to say there’s a lot of great music on the soundtrack, but this longstanding fan of 60s music probably knew too much about it: I couldn’t help noticing that several tracks had not even been recorded at the time this film is set.
Curtis’s forte is the romantic comedy, and that’s the genre where his previous successes (including The Tall Guy and his co-scripting credit on Bridget Jones’s Diary) have lain. There’s also a case to be made that as a writer he works best in collaboration rather than solo: compare the first series of The Black Adder which he wrote on his own, to the follow-ups, where he collaborated with Ben Elton. And he should get better directors in.
Finally, The Boat That Rocked obeys my rule of thumb that a comedy is overlong by the amount it exceeds ninety minutes. There are exceptions: Billy Wilder was responsible for some of them, but Curtis is certainly no Wilder. The Boat That Rocks runs two and a quarter hours and the time flies much like an ostrich does.
Rocks? Sucks, more like.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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