Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End

WFTB Score: 7/20

The plot: With Davy Jones and his Flying Dutchman at his beck and call, Lord Beckett of the East India Company is poised to crush piracy on the high seas for once and for all. And with Captain Jack Sparrow stuck in limbo, the battle appears lost before it’s even begun. On the other hand, he has enemies in low places who are willing to drag him out – even if it’s just to kill him again.

These are dark times for the uneasy brotherhood of pirates. Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander) has the might of the East India Company cracking down on anyone associated with piracy; he also has custody of Davy Jones’ (Bill Nighy) heart, enabling him to send the Flying Dutchman and its fearsome crew to crush any insurrection. Worse, the pirates are a squabbling, scattered bunch: though sorceress Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris) has brought Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) back from the dead, Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is trapped in Davy Jones’ locker and Pirate Lord Sao Feng (Chow Yun-Fat), one of Jack’s fiercest enemies and the man with the chart leading to the locker, is in no mood to get him back out again.

However, the situation is so dire that the pirates’ only salvation lies in persuading goddess Calypso to help by setting her free from human bonds; for that, they must convene a Brethren Court, and to do that they need Jack – going ever so slightly mad in confinement – back in the land of the living. Meanwhile, Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) rescues Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) but their relationship is strained; Elizabeth worries about her father, the former Governor Swann (Jonathan Pryce), with good cause; whilst Will remains determined to set his father (Stellan Skarsgard) free from his obligations aboard the Dutchman.

I don’t mean this as a criticism (necessarily), but POTC: AWD is a real case of ‘join the dots’ writing. The mechanics are plain to see, starting at point A – that is, where the personnel were left at the end of Dead Man’s Chest – and ending up at point Z, a ruddy great massed battle between The East India Company and Davy Jones on one side, the pirates plus Elizabeth and Jack on the other, though in fact the E.I.C’s armada and the Pirate Lords hang back while Jack, Barbossa and our other ‘friends’ battle the Dutchman and Beckett’s Endeavour. A good thing too, possibly, as three ships provide more than enough opportunity for spinning around in maelstroms, swinging around on ropes and other monkey business (of which more later).

In the sense that the film finally arrives at its climax, the story is sound enough; but the course the plot…er, plots to get there is a strange one indeed. The pirates’ call to arms comes via the singing of a song, the music emanating from the gallows, with extraordinary scenes of men, women and a child being hanged and imagery that can only recall the holocaust. This sombre atmosphere is barely leavened as events slowly take a semblance of shape, and barely a scene goes by without one issue or another rearing its head: early on, it falls to Chow-Yun Fat to explain much of what’s going on, a problem because his accident is almost as difficult to follow as what he’s trying to explain.

It takes half an hour for Depp to make an appearance, and when he does it’s in a strange, slow, CGI-heavy scene where Sparrow talks to, commands and kills himself in an approximation of madness which works technically, but doesn’t make a whole load of sense and isn’t funny either. The film alternates long talky segments, characters (like Jack Davenport’s Admiral Norrington) popping up without so much as a by your leave, with frenetic action sequences that are low on coherence but surprisingly high on body count for a ‘family’ film. Indeed, counting up all the strands of the plot, including Elizabeth’s father’s death, the historical romance between Davy Jones and Tia Dalma and the intrigues at the Brethren Court which result in Elizabeth’s anointment as Pirate King, it’s hard to imagine younger children sitting patiently or unquestioningly throughout the near-three-hour running time. The plot becomes clearer on a repeated viewing, but it’s clearly not just me who found parts of it obscure – uniquely (in my collection, anyway), the DVD comes with an FAQ section clarifying bits of the film that the film itself fails to explain.

If this all sounds like a massive downer on At World’s End, I need to qualify the criticism. The script is fine, with a decent smattering of jokes to give some levity to proceedings: even if gags like the telescope envy are strictly there for the benefit of fidgety adults, there are others which come as a very pleasant surprise – I’m specifically thinking of the Pythonesque delivery of ‘And so we shall go to war!’

And even if Depp’s swaggering shtick is running low on inspiration by this third instalment (the multiplicity of Sparrows is really not needed), he benefits massively from the return of Rush’s effortlessly charismatic Barbossa. The problem is, while Barbossa, Sparrow, Davy Jones, Beckett and reliable comic relief Pintel and Ragetti (Lee Arenberg and Mackenzie Crook) are consistently interesting, the film gravitates towards Will and Elizabeth, who improbably become commander of the Dutchman and Pirate King respectively.

Bloom continues to suffer from the problem that his determined voice is little more than a whisper, while Knightley looks ridiculous and her inspirational speech-making voice sounds like a hockey captain corralling a hen party. It’s curious that the film marries them off during the middle of a pitched battle, since their relationship is absolutely the least interesting thing about the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. The proof comes in the fact that the emotional responses to events are conveyed for the most part not through Bloom or Knightley, but through Barbossa’s capuchin monkey (R2-D2 performs much the same function in Star Wars).

It’s easy to dismiss Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End as an example of what’s worst about Hollywood film-making; and it’s true that the enormous budget has all gone on sets and effects, much to the detriment of clear, crisp storytelling. However, while it’s too long, too messy and too grim to be thought of as either a good kid’s film or a good film full stop, I can’t join in with the opinion that it’s offensively or evilly bad. It’s just a film apparently made with the knowledge that it was going to rake in the money whether it was any good or not: so why try any harder?

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