It’s not clear whether someone asked him or not, but Richard Curtis seems to think that he is now responsible for presenting a vision of Britain that glows with progressive energy and infectious optimism. Not for him the kitchen-sink realism of Ken Loach or Andrea Arnold, or the hard-knock macho silliness of Nick Lowe. He’s more interested in treating the stuffy image of Britain as a curtain that can be pulled back to show a country that will be compelled to dance if someone plays the right song. Thanks are due for making British history as funny as he (and co-writer Ben Elton) did with Blackadder, but his dominance over British film and TV becomes hard to swallow as we are submerged under a tide of worthy feel-good pablum such as The Vicar of Dibley, The Girl in the Cafe, the TV adaptation of Alexander McCall Smith’s cutesy The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, etc. As with overworked screenwriter Andrew Davies, Curtis gets everywhere, and for those of us who would like British culture to contain more than slightly raunchy adaptations of classic novels or movies that make committee-driven American product feel like the works of Jean-Luc Godard, the ubiquity of these two men begins to feel a little oppressive.
The Boat That Rocked is Curtis’ most recent attempt at mythologising the British Experience, taking the fascinating story of Radio Caroline and reducing it to a bog-standard rebels vs. Empire tale riddled with dick jokes, unappealing caricatures, and a depressingly retrograde attitude to women. Actually, “jokes” is the wrong word to describe the zaniness that pervades the movie. There is never anything as concrete as a joke delivered. Instead there is a nebulous air of “humour”, an ambience that feels funny without ever doing anything amusing. It is to comedy as froth is to food. Unfortunately that froth is thinly spread over two hours of footage.
Giving a synopsis of the movie is simultaneously difficult and very easy. Difficult because a lot of small things happen that mean nothing in terms of plot, but easy as the central thread of the movie — youth vs. old age — is presented with Manichean simplicity. As with Radio Caroline, the movie’s fictional counterpart — the imaginatively named Radio Rock — broadcasts pop music from a boat moored somewhere in the North Sea to a large audience of young listeners. Unlike Radio Caroline, Curtis creates a scenario where the British government — and by association the BBC — have restricted the amount of popular music played on licensed national radio, and Radio Rock serves as a corrective to this by pumping out a non-stop barrage of The Who, The Small Faces, The Kinks, and the odd Motown/Stax classic for variety. Of course, the BBC played more popular music — and Radio Caroline less subversive music – than Curtis will admit. He operates in broad strokes, and fact will merely reduce the impact of his blunt message.
While the boat is populated with a menagerie of ill-defined “characters” (in both senses of the word) having the time of their lives, the establishment is painted as a group of out-of-touch, sour-faced nags, as grey as Steve Bell’s caricatures of John Major. It is painful to see Kenneth Branagh trying — and failing — to breathe life into the character of Sir Alastair Dormandy. Given no inner life to work with, Dormandy states quite clearly that he is trying to destroy pirate radio as he thinks it’s horrible and hates the thought of the public enjoying themselves. His unsubtle grouching is mostly aimed his equally hateful second-in-command, played by Jack Davenport. Much has been made of the name of this character — Twatt — though less note has been made of the decision to change the name of personal assistant Miss C from the original name of Miss Clit. Curtis must be more interested in displaying Twatt than acknowledging the existence of Clit, I guess.
That might explain why The Boat That Rocked is set in a retrograde world where women are sexually liberated enough that they don’t seem to mind being swapped around from one Radio Rock DJ to another as if they were soulless commodities. One excruciating scene shows DJ Dave (Nick Frost) attempting to deceive groupie Desiree (Gemma Arterton) into sleeping with virginal wallflower Carl (Tom Sturridge, looking like a rabbit caught in the headlights), the inference being that Desiree will be just fine with this because it’s all fair game and not actually non-consensual sex. Even Radio Rock proprietor Quentin (Bill Nighy) endorses this deflowering project, bringing his niece Marianne (Talulah Riley) onboard as a figurative virginal sacrifice to Carl, who is then seduced by Dave behind his back despite his earlier efforts to help the young man.
It’s the last thing you would expect from Curtis, and one suspects he is trying to pay homage to Carry On-style British sauciness, but his attempts to make this seem charming and empowering fail because the only contrast to this selfish behaviour is the colourless world populated by fun-hating automatons like Branagh and Davenport. It’s either grey cardigans or thoughtless sexual voraciousness, and you don’t want to be on the side of the squares, do you? It doesn’t matter if you treat your fellow man / woman with contempt, as long as you’re having a good time doing it. Besides, Curtis is otherwise politically correct enough to add an almost mute black kid (Ike Hamilton) and a lesbian (Katherine Parkinson) to the crew, because yay diversity! Calling the tone of the movie schizophrenic is putting it mildly.
It doesn’t help that Curtis’ cast of characters are unforgivably awful, and his impressive cast wasted. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Rhys Ifans play egotistical buffoons who care more about upstaging each other than about the feelings of their colleagues, shunning feeble Omega-males Chris O’Dowd, Rhys Darby and Tom Brooke (playing Baldrick-surrogate Thick Kevin) as if tainted. Even Nick Frost’s innate likeability is not enough to make his character endearing, which says much for Curtis’ misunderstanding of tone. If only someone had taken Curtis to one side to explain a truth established a long time ago: there is nothing more tawdry and depressing than hearing an Englishman talk about sex. Memories of Robin Askwith peering through bedroom windows at horrified housewives in their underwear flash through the mind. If Curtis is trying to evoke memories of British sex comedies from the Sixties and Seventies, the pertinent question is: why in the world would anyone in their right mind want to do that?
If we’re meant to be attracted to this group of misogynistic grotesques, the reasons are lost in the edit, which could account for the majority of the movie’s flaws. Tales are told of an original three-hour edit, pared down to 135 minutes in the UK and 90 minutes in the US (where the title has been changed to Pirate Radio). The UK release seems so unfocused that it feels like Curtis lost track of all of the footage in the editing room and accidentally deleted the wrong scenes, leaving us with lots of pointless dancing and a disparate collection of second acts that have no context. As such it is hard to criticise the movie for its sexual politics or unappealing characters because we cannot know if these failings would have been resolved had the editing been tighter. Much as I don’t want to attribute gross negligence to a man who has been telling stories with some success (financial and artistic) for a long time, it’s apparent that The Boat That Rocked is not a finished product. Was Curtis bored with this project by the time of release? Did the shooting schedule run over due to all of the larks, leaving less time for post-production?
This stew of unresolved threads cannot be called a movie. It’s a themed sketch show, intentionally leaving the odd memorable moment adrift in a content-free tone soup of tone. Daisyhellcakes (whose affection for Curtis’ work was severely dented by this movie) observed that its poor-plotting and forced air of jollity were reminiscent of Mamma Mia, and she’s onto something, and not just because criticism of the subject matter comes with the risk of being labelled a humourless prude. Other than a subplot about Carl finding his father (played by Ralph Brown as a stoner, for a change), Curtis cannot bring any subplot to a satisfying conclusion and so resorts to Mamma Mia director Phyllida Lloyd’s trick of battering the audience with relentless upbeat exhibitionism. There are a seemingly infinite number of montages showing people dancing around their radios, cross-cut with shots of DJs yelling tedious insults about penis size at each other over the assorted Sounds of the Sixties. If you thought Good Morning, Vietnam would have been a better movie without Robin Williams or the clumsy rhetoric about the horrors of war, you were wrong.
Perhaps Curtis has watched too many clip shows on Channel 4, and thinks that as long as he adds a couple of scenes that resonate enough to get a mention in one of those time-wasting monstrosities then his job is done. The only moment that generates an emotional response is when Chris O’Dowd’s virginal DJ Simple Simon Swofford is jilted by his new bride (January Jones, not setting the world of comedy on fire with her two scenes). As she leaves him after seventeen hours of marriage to be with Rhys Ifans’ lothario Gavin, a heartbroken O’Dowd plays Lorraine Ellison’s gut-wrenchingly beautiful Stay With Me and mimes along, face contorted in pain.
Sadly, any hope that this scene will add an extra dimension by reflecting on the emotional fallout that can come with free love and — more importantly — what these characters actually think other than “Fab grooviness!” is futile. O’Dowd seemingly forgives Ifans a few minutes later, and by the end of the movie he has found a new love interest whose boobs drive him into paroxysms of screeching joy. The calculation of Curtis is even more apparent when — during a credit sequence that features much of the leftover footage of the cast members dancing badly — Ellison’s breathtaking version of Stay With Me is replaced by a soulless cover version by Welsh squeak-merchant Duffy. Cross-media synergy pours from the screen, with Duffy’s impression of a jilted mouse providing the soundtrack.
Making this nostalgic movie in the Internet age — where we have a hither-to unheard-of opportunity to express ourselves or find like-minded individuals — there is potential here for an exploration of what it was like to live in an era when broadcasting thoughts and music from the fringe was a privilege of a select few willing to oppose the restrictive establishment. The Boat That Rocked is not interested in that, and shouldn’t be criticised for telling a different story. Nevertheless, what we get instead of an exploration of… well, anything, is a melange of disconnected anecdotes and an ill-defined shout of rage at officious nay-sayers who think they have the right to monitor and protect our morals. It’s impossible to tell if Curtis has anything substantial to say within the chaos of this edit, though it must be noted that his rush to paint the British government as the enemies of anything progressive means he has to attribute the formation of the pirate-radio-killing Marine Offences Act to a joyless villain with no soul. In real life the act was put into law by the Postmaster General, who at the time was Tony Benn, one of the most fearless and progressive politicians the UK has ever seen. Even though Curtis has made it clear that his movie is a fantasy, it’s still inspired by reality, and this misrepresentation of what Benn stands for leaves a sour taste in the mouth.
The Boat That Rocked is worth avoiding for many reasons: the relentless wave of forced glee, the depressing stream of witless dick jokes, the contrived Field-Of-Dreams-esque uplift of the final scene. However, beneath the whirl of colour and cheekiness of his fantasy world is a mass of contrivance that betrays the far more interesting and complex tale of the battle between Radio Caroline and Tony Benn. Any serious message that could be derived from the very real conflict between the government and the motormouth DJs of 60s pirate radio has been drowned out by the endless Funn! ™, leaving us with a Cool Brittania promo vid that would have seemed hoary last decade. It’s a vapid exercise in nostalgia porn that wallows in the murkiest waters of seaside-postcard-esque British culture and reveals Curtis’ carefully sculpted reputation as a writer of sophisticated comedy is an empty PR fantasy. Other than the similarly regressive Lesbian Vampire Killers — a contender for worst movie of the decade — The Boat That Rocked is the most dispiriting British film released in 2009. Do yourself a favour and find a copy of Allan Moyle’s Pump Up The Volume instead. It features 100% less Rhys Ifans and has Leonard Cohen and Sonic Youth on the soundtrack. It’s good enough to make me moodily dance around my radio.