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Movie Review: The Boat That Rocked (AKA Pirate Radio)

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I remember the first time I watched a Richard Curtis film. I was 14 years old and I sat down with my grandma to watch a little film called Four Weddings and a Funeral which then went on to receive a Best Picture nod. I have always been just as interested in who made a movie as much as I was interested in the final product.

Since then I have always had Richard Curtis on my radar as he single-handedly introduced me to the greatness that is the British film industry, whether through his early work in television (The Black Adder and Mr. Bean) or his more well known films (Notting Hill and the adaptation of Bridget Jones’s Diary). I am always interested to see what witty line of dialogue or genuine emotion he might display for us next, which brings us to his new movie, The Boat That Rocked. Or, as it has been Americanized in the name of profit, Pirate Radio.

In 1966, a motley crew of radio pirates are sitting on a boat in the ocean playing rock and pop music 24 hours a day for the good people of Britain. This is their only means as the British government denies it being played locally and is trying its damnedest to outlaw the boats in their midst. The crew of Radio Rock has the biggest following and extremely loyal listeners, much to the government’s dismay.

“Young” Carl (Tom Sturridge) has just come aboard Radio Rock and is introduced to his godfather Quentin (brilliantly played by Bill Nighy) and it is explained that his mom has made the “spectacular mistake” of sending him to the high seas to learn a thing or two and is told it is punishment for smoking, both drugs and cigarettes. This is of course responded to by Quentin with a “Well done.”

Carl is introduced to the crew consisting of head DJ, The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in full Twister Dusty mode); News John (Will Adamsdale); Dave (surprisingly suavely portrayed by Nick Frost of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz glory); Angus (Rhys Darby, Murray from The Flight of the Conchords), and his roommate Thick Kevin (Tom Brooke).

In hopes of banning the pirate radio ships, Sir Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh) has brought under his wing a character only ever known as Twatt (Jack Davenport, the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy and the hilarious BBC series Coupling) to bring them down. A cat-and-mouse game begins as Twatt finds one way of silencing them while the crew of Radio Rock find another way around it.

One such device is to make advertising illegal for the pirates raiding the airwaves. While their funding slowly dwindles away it makes for the return of their most demanded DJ, Gavin. Once aboard the ship the allegiances begin shifting while everyone aboard tries to maintain order to stay afloat.

Lessons are learned and relations are made with some great cameos by the likes of Emma Thompson (as Carl’s mother, Charlotte), Talulah Riley, Gemma Arterton, and January Jones. Some people have felt that movie goes on far too long and that the climax feels too forced and unnecessary but I loved every second of it and that’s when some of the film's biggest and best jokes arise, even while the ship starts to go down.

Curtis seems to work best when writing with an ensemble cast in mind. It’s when he has to provide a feature-length script for one main character that it seems to land with a thud. Anyone who has bore witness to Bean knows exactly what I am talking about.

In Four Weddings he gave us great roles for Hugh Grant, Andie MacDowell, Kristin Scott Thomas, and John Hannah. For Notting Hill we had Julia Roberts, Hugh Grant again, and Rhys Ifans. In Bridget Jones’s Diary he managed to bring the book to great life with established characters played perfectly by Renee Zellweger, Gemma Jones, Colin Firth, Jim Broadbent, and, for the third time, Hugh Grant. The less said about the abysmal in-it-for-the-money sequel the better.

With Love Actually he gave us a movie filled to the brim with organic, lovable, and realistic characters with so much characterization you long for the full four hour director’s cut. After writing for Hugh Grant in five films (he’s also in the Bridget Jones sequel and Love Actually) one would think that he was Curtis’s full-time muse but never once does he appear in his new film The Boat That Rocked and this may be the only thing that keeps it from being his biggest accomplishment. I still find Love Actually to be my personal favorite.

Curtis proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that his behind-the-camera work with Love Actually was no fluke. And as much a fuss has been made about the soundtrack, I feel like I don’t really need to contribute. But I have a genre I love to mention that I call the “unintentional musical” which is where a movie uses music to tell its story even if not outright sung by its characters and this is definitely one of those and ranks among the best of them.

If you’re looking for something hilarious and lighthearted, a little saucy with a side of wholesomeness, then look no further. Every moment rings true and there are many amazing moments of cinematic brilliance spread throughout.

I watched an imported British region-free Blu-ray which can be purchased through UK Amazon (hence the review title being for The Boat that Rocked and not the sub-par American title Pirate Radio). This is the only way you can experience the full version in its 135 minute glory, so order a copy immediately. While visiting the site you may as well throw in a copy of the soundtrack since once the film is over you’ll want to pop it in and listen to it over and over.

Photo courtesy Universal Pictures

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About Cinenerd

A Utah based writer, born and raised in Salt Lake City, UT for better and worse. Cinenerd has had an obsession with film his entire life, finally able to write about them since 2009, and the only thing he loves more are his wife and their two wiener dogs (Beatrix Kiddo and Pixar Animation). He is accredited with the Sundance Film Festival.