In writer/director Richard Curtis’s The Boat That Rocked it is 1966 and conservative party pooper politicians are fighting a moral crusade against rock and pop, limiting its airplay to 45 minutes a day. All is still groovy for the people of England, however, thanks to the hard work and unrelenting coolness of a team of radio renegade round-the-clock good timers who broadcast great tunes 24/7 onboard a boat anchored in international waters.
The film boasts a cracking cast including Bill Nighy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tom Sturridge, Rhys Ifans, Nick Frost and Rhys Darby. Amongst these cool cats Curtis seems an unusual choice for the ring leader, as his CV (director of Notting Hill and Love, Actually and screenwriter of the Bridget Jones and Mr Bean movies) paints him more as an endearing dag than a trendy director.
Kenneth Branagh clearly enjoyed hamming it up as Minister Darmody, a humourless politician with an axe to grind and a party boat to gatecrash. The politician characters are treated as super square super villains (one of their names is actually Twat) and their arc in the story firmly places the film in a capricious context.
Carl (Tom Sturridge) has been expelled from school and sent by his mother (Emma Thompson) to spend time with his godfather Quentin, aka The Count (Bill Nighy) – the boat’s head honcho and manager of the pirate station that broadcasts from it: Radio Rock. What is left of Carl’s innocence will be expunged by an episodic series of party-themed encounters, with plenty of jokes thrown in about his youth and naivety. Quentin, for example, greets Carl by announcing how proud he is that he got expelled for smoking and the crew regularly contribute life coaching advice – such as one DJ who advises the young man on lovemaking: “be gentle but firm. Very firm indeed.”
Curtis does a decent job containing the overflow of talent onboard, even if his glossy middle of the road style inevitably smoothes over some of the actors’ natural edginess. His direction maintains a snappy rhythm for most of the movie, jumping back to the politicians/villains plotline or introducing a new character whenever the action feels like it’s about to wane.
The cast crackle with energy but Curtis’s grasp of comedy struggles and the plot is hit and miss. In short: the cast in TBTR truly rock but the movie, not so much. Plenty of TBTR’s jokes misfire or fall flat, a meek romantic subplot is superfluously squeezed in and the ending, saturated in more ways than one, goes on for way too long and doesn’t capture the celebratory tone Curtis was clearly shooting for.
The cast has broad appeal and keep The Boat That Rocked afloat, though it’s a shame the script couldn’t provide at least one strong female personality to counter all the testosterone. Like listeners naughtily tuning in to Radio Rock’s prohibited playlist, you can’t help but want to jump onboard The Boat that Rocked and fraternise with the film’s fabulous cast. Anyone who doesn’t want to mingle with the Radio Rock crew is probably one of the conservative fun-allergic twats Curtis cheerfully lampoons, in which case they’d probably be better advised to stay home with a book of crosswords and a jug of tang.
The Boat That Rocked’s Australian theatrical release date: 9 April 2009
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