WFTB Score: 15/20
The plot: During his quest to reclaim his ship, the Black Pearl, from the mutinous dogs who took it, Captain Jack Sparrow incidentally involves two innocents in the nasty piratical affair: Elizabeth Swann, the daughter of a governor, and William Turner, the boy she rescued as a child and for whom there is a requited, but unspoken, affection. Little do they know that Bill has his own links to piracy and holds the key to the dreadful curse afflicting the Black Pearl’s crew.
It is sometimes difficult to judge a film neutrally when sequels have proved (at best) disappointing – you might call it the Matrix effect – but fortunately it is such a long time since I have seen the other two PotC (for brevity) films that I feel I can be detached about this one. I cannot think of any other films that have taken their inspiration from a theme park ride, so saying this is the best film to be based on a theme park ride is not necessarily much of a compliment. As it happens, it definitely is a compliment, as the thrills the film provides are almost a match for the ride itself.
Curse of the Black Pearl begins with a short prologue that sees Governor Swann (Jonathan Pryce) travelling to Port Royal with his daughter Elizabeth and stiff British Navy Officer Norrington (Jack Davenport). They pick up young drifter William Turner, and fearing it will get him in trouble, Elizabeth takes from him a gold medallion, embossed with a skull. Ten years later, Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) is of an age to be married, presumably to Commodore Norrington, since William (Orlando Bloom) is no more than a blacksmith’s apprentice, even though he turns out fine swords. What neither of them realise is that the medallion Elizabeth took from William is an irresistible beacon to the crew of the Black Pearl under Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), and not because of its intrinsic value.
Barbossa and his men, most notably Pintel and Ragetti (Lee Arenberg and Mackenzie Crook), attack Port Royal and take Elizabeth – claiming the surname Turner – as hostage. Coincidentally, Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) has also been active in Port Royal, getting himself arrested in his search for a new ship. Bill frees Sparrow from prison and the pair set off to catch up with Elizabeth and Barbossa; when Barbossa becomes aware that William, not Elizabeth, is the offspring of his old mate ‘Bootstrap’ Bill Turner, he realises the true value of holding Elizabeth captive: a combination of the medallion and young Bill’s blood is the only release from a curse that turns him and his crew into the walking dead in moonlight. Meanwhile, Norrington is hard on the heels of both the Black Pearl and Sparrow, desperate to get back his prisoner, the Navy ship Sparrow nicked, and the woman who (he hopes) is soon to be his wife.
Make no mistake about it, narrative coherence takes a back seat in Curse of the Black Pearl. Characters often make strange decisions or reveal unexpected talents, such as Elizabeth’s surprisingly intimate knowledge of ‘Parley’ and the Pirates’ Code, or her skilful manipulation of Captain Jack when they are marooned on a desert island. And as Jack and William, and the British Navy, chase after the Black Pearl, it’s not always clear who is on what boat, who they are fighting, or why; luckily, the fact that the baddies become skeletal helps to keep the parties distinct.
In the front seat, the action sequences that drive the film are little short of brilliant, combining inventive swordplay with immaculate special effects, managing to be horrifying without being too scary and conveying a real sense of battle at sea. Married to this is a terrific sense of humour, which punctuates the drama of big fights and livens up sections that attempt to explain the plot, all focused on the character of Jack Sparrow. As the film’s central mischief maker Johnny Depp’s creation is magnetic, a swaggering, always half-drunk scoundrel with wit and resourcefulness, whose heart is probably in the right place even if he insists he’s only looking out for himself.
Sparrow is so much fun that he wisely gets most of the best lines, with Rush providing strong opposition and the partnership of Arenberg and Crook light relief. In comparison, it is easy to criticise both Bloom and Knightley for underplaying their parts; but even if it’s accidental, their ordinariness works in the film’s favour as the young lovers do their thing blandly and prettily, whilst Jack and Barbossa slice up the screen.
Essentially, then, Curse of the Black Pearl is a magnificent-looking film with a snappy script (from the writers of the first Shrek, unsurprisingly) and a lead role played to perfection by arguably the leading male actor of the day (respectfully excluding veterans like Michael Caine or Harrison Ford); critics may bemoan the lack of fluency or nuance in the story-telling, and I would certainly side with them when talking about the sequels, but the easy introduction of the characters here, and the motivation they are provided with, is sufficiently strong that you can recommend the movie in fewer words than appear in the full title: Brain off to enjoy action, laughs and romance.