Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

WFTB Score: 6/20

The plot: When William Turner’s wedding to his beloved Elizabeth is inconveniently interrupted by the threat of execution, his one shot at freedom is to find Captain Jack Sparrow and bring him – and his mysterious compass – back to Port Royal. Jack, meanwhile, is busy staying out of deep waters, where both Davy Jones and the monstrous Kraken lie in wait; and Elizabeth is not the sort of girl to take her confinement lying down.

The smallest thing can upset a young bride on her wedding day: a chipped nail, missing flowers, being arrested with the groom for aiding piracy with the promise of hangings to follow…such is the fate of Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) and her intended William Turner (Orlando Bloom) when the East India Company’s Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander) shows up uninvited. However, Beckett has a proposition for Turner; if he can persuade his recent associate Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) to become a privateer and part with his compass – which directs its holder to the thing he or she most desires – all transgressions will be pardoned.

Turner sets off but finds Sparrow curiously absent from the High Seas, the reason being that the notoriously unreliable Captain is overdue on paying squid-faced Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) the price for resurrecting the Black Pearl thirty years ago – his soul. Turner catches up with Sparrow on an island where the pirate is being hailed as a deity, but no sooner have they escaped than Jack tricks the young man into going aboard Jones’ ship, the Flying Dutchman.

In part, Sparrow wants the key to the titular dead man’s chest wherein – as voodoo priestess Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris) has advised – Jones keeps his heart safe, enabling him to rule the sea via the ship-swallowing Kraken. In another part, Turner helps pay off his debt, and if Sparrow can find another 99 souls it squares the debt completely. While William finds his father ‘Bootstrap’ Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) labouring aboard the Dutchman, Sparrow enlists scurvy dogs on the unruly island of Tortuga, including fallen Commander Norrington (Jack Davenport) and a young lad who looks remarkably like Elizabeth. With the help of her father (Jonathan Pryce), Elizabeth has indeed made her own way towards William; but as Jack makes clear, her future happiness relies on him – or at least, on his ability to find the chest before Jones (or anyone else) gets to it.

If the plot of the first Pirates film, Curse of the Black Pearl, was occasionally a little confusing, it could at least be summarised in relatively few words: woman is kidnapped by evil pirate, her good-hearted soulmate is forced to seek help from morally ambivalent pirate to effect rescue. There’s no way that you could reduce the plot of Dead Man’s Chest to even twice that length without missing out great slabs of the story, and this is a massive problem.

The film sets up a number of quests but completely fails to keep a clear narrative line through the labyrinthine plot as it develops its numerous strands, the result being that the viewer is left with many more questions than answers: who is Tia Dalma? Why is Elizabeth apparently attracted to Jack? What is Beckett’s ulterior motive? Unfortunately, very few of the questions are answered and the film ends after two and a half hours without a resolution, only a tease for the next instalment.

You could argue, of course, that The Empire Strikes Back also ended half way through, but that film came with fun fights and a massively satisfying reveal. Dead Man’s Chest, bafflingly, forgets to have much fun at all. Production designer Rick Heinrichs creates a world where the encrusted, salty life of the sea clings to everything, most notably in the astounding, Oscar-winning visual effects of the Dutchman‘s exotic crew; it’s an impressive but oppressive and gloomy world of murky blacks and greens, an arena where it’s often hard to tell who’s swashbuckling with whom – little wonder one of the most significant set-pieces is a virtually static game of perudo.

Elsewhere, things are no clearer; there are fights on massive wheels, pitched battles for custody of the chest and desperate attempts to fight off the multi-tentacled Kraken, but the action is often so frantic and fractured that it fails to involve or excite. As you might expect from the writers of Shrek, a lot of the action is cartoonish, though this isn’t a compliment in this instance; what works in animation doesn’t always convince in live action, for example William and friends zorbing or Jack pole-vaulting/becoming the meat in a huge shish kebab when escaping from the cannibal island.

Dead Man’s Chest is messy, confusing and unsure of itself, as if every idea went in regardless of whether or not it served the overall structure. Just because you can afford to bring everything to the screen – this is one of the most expensive films ever made – doesn’t mean you have to, and the film could have done with a smidgen of artistic, if not fiscal, discipline.

What I’ve not mentioned so far is the main reason why Pirates of the Caribbean even got as far as a sequel – Johnny Depp. Depp’s louche, swaggering performance as the morally ambiguous Sparrow was quite brilliant in the first movie; while he repeats the performance here, most of his lines lack the same snap, and he’s diluted to such an extent that his impact is severely diminished. Again, it’s as if the film-makers couldn’t bear to lose anyone from the first film, yet felt compelled to introduce new characters anyway; so Depp has to share the exhausting running time with Knightley, Bloom, Davenport, Harris, Nighy (under a heap of make-up and CGI), Lee Arenberg and Mackenzie Crook as returning idiots Pintel and Ragetti, Hollander’s slimy Beckett and his shadowy spy, Mercer (David Schofield), amongst others (mention should be made of Kevin McNally’s stalwart Gibbs).

The film certainly suffers from Depp’s reduced participation, for while Bloom is athletic, he’s not a magnetic presence – he fails to emote much, even during the reunion with his father, and his shouty voice is bizarrely lower and quieter than his normal one. Knightley, meanwhile, often seems all at sea in her expanded role, but she’s only partially at fault; the script asks her to (appear to?) be romantically interested in Jack as well as William, for complicated reasons that neither she nor the viewer understands.

I was one of the millions who saw Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest in the cinema in 2006, helping to make it one of the most successful films of all time. I was disappointed then, and watching the film again reminds me of that disappointment and frustration. Nearly all the goodwill from Curse of the Black Pearl is wasted on a technically stupendous but meandering and largely humourless adventure, which throws everything at the screen but ultimately comes across as a load of computer-generated sound and fury, signifying absolutely nothing.

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