WFTB Score: 8/20
The plot: Packed off to his godfather to experience a bit of life, callow teenager Carl becomes part of the furniture at Radio Rock, the swingingest ship in British waters. Life on board has its ups and downs – not all of the variety Carl would like – but if the government has its way, the ship’s boisterous roster of DJs are about to be silenced forever.
Being sent off to your godfather’s workplace might sound like purgatory to most young men, but if the godfather is the rather groovy Quentin (Bill Nighy), and the workplace the (in)famous pirate radio ship Radio Rock, there are benefits. Firstly, Carl (Tom Sturridge) gets the chance to put faces to the beloved voices that run the station: ‘Doctor’ Dave (Nick Frost), ‘simple’ Simon (Chris O’Dowd), top dog ‘The Count’ (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and, later, his uber-confident rival Gavin (Rhys Ifans), amongst others.
Secondly, the lure of the station and its wonderful music brings on board a bevy of lovely ladies, not least Quentin’s niece Marianne (Talulah Riley) who immediately takes – and breaks – Carl’s heart, and Elenore (January Jones) who does much the same as Simon’s bride.
Carl also gets wind that someone on board may be his hitherto-unidentified father, but the crew have bigger problems in the shape of utterly square government minister Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh) and his dogged underling Twatt (Jack Davenport); they’re driven by a hatred of Radio Rock and everything it represents, and are determined to take it and its like off the airwaves. Quentin ensures that they won’t go down without a fight, but – one way or another – it seems Radio Rock is going down.
There’s a message that (almost) literally sings out from The Boat that Rocked, one that’s broadcast (to employ the obvious metaphor) loud and clear for all to hear: Richard Curtis really loved Pirate radio. And to give the film its due, the warmth of feeling it displays towards the brief period when rock and pop emanated mainly from these anarchic vessels comes over in spades. The DJs, to a man, have a heart of gold and if they’re a bit loose with each other’s women, hey, it’s the time of Free Love, isn’t it? The records they play provide a perfect soundtrack – however much it’s due to the classic tracks surviving and the naff ones being forgotten, it seems harder to pick a poor 60s record than a great one.
Unfortunately, while Curtis has oodles of love for his subject, what he doesn’t have is even the vaguest story to tell, two overarching tales notwithstanding. The first, the government cracking down on pirate radio, is based in some truth but presented in such cartoonish terms that you feel faintly patronised as an adult viewer. Branagh’s Dormandy is a typical little Hitler (by way of Arthur Lowe’s Captain Mainwaring), the uptight upper-class stiff who can’t abide what the youth are doing. He – and Davenport’s oh-so-hysterically named Twatt (why not, the Darling joke worked so well in Blackadder Goes Forth) – are both ‘The Man’, so to speak, but the conflict between the government and the station is mostly indirect, and the antagonists are drawn in such broad strokes that you can’t get angry about them.
Neither do they get any comeuppance to speak of, so the story forgets about them as it drifts towards an anachronistic Titanic parody whose tone is so uncertain that the putative comedy and potential for tragedy cancel each other out. Oh, there’s some wartime stuff chucked in too, as the layabouts dedicated solely to having a good time suddenly adopt salutes and camaraderie and the music comes over all military (the stirring strings of Elgar and the Dambusters march) before Dunkirk is evoked. It’s all a bit of a mess, as well as faintly insulting to people who actually fought in real wars.
The second major thread, Carl’s coming of age and search for a father (figure), is played out in similarly broad fashion. Carl himself is really a nothing character, our mopey means of introduction to the gods of Pirate radio, so you’re never really concerned about his Confessions of…-level scrapes where he’s introduced to a young lady under false pretenses, his disastrous search for a condom, or whether he’ll either lose his cherry or find his father on board. Handled differently, Carl and Marianne’s relationship might have been touching: but she’s so easy, and he’s so wet, that its consummation feels neither here nor there. The film certainly doesn’t earn its kissy-kissy, happy-ever-afters-for everyone ending.
While on the subject, it chimes in with the period to some extent but the portrayal of women in TBTR is pretty horrible, the young ladies all being sex-mad groupies. Mind you, this is hardly new: Curtis is admirably right-on in many respects, but never appears to have overcome his boyish over-excitement about sex and the female form, or his thing about nympho/psycho Americans. Sex magnet Mark’s tableau vivant of nudes is another, rather strange, case in point.
Because neither of these storylines are a) particularly interesting or b) can sustain themselves for long, TBTR fills up its inexcusably protracted running time with sketch material (that is, when we’re not clumsily cutting to the groovy people of Britain, endlessly dancing and reacting to Radio Rock’s every sound). Chief filler is the prelude and aftermath of Simon’s wedding, which goes on for way too long, with little that’s amusing and nothing of any consequence to plot (either of them) or character development. Okay, the Count (defending Simon’s honour) and Gavin ramp up their rivalry, but their underlying respect is never in doubt.
Actually, while I didn’t much care for Evans’ aggressive personality, he and the effectively sincere Seymour Hoffman are two of the brighter spots in the movie (O’Dowd is always personable, of course, and Nighy’s always pretty good value). The action, such as it is, is shot effectively enough as well. But there’s just not enough story, enough drive, enough proper stuff to fill 135 minutes, and plenty of missed opportunities: Emma Thompson is utterly wasted in a three-minute cameo where she nonchalantly solves a mystery we didn’t much care about in the first place. The set-ups, pay-offs and characters all feel like sitcom cast-offs: the wonderful Katherine Parkinson as a lesbian tea-lady, Tom Brooke’s Thick Kevin.
Richard Curtis may think he’s made a film about the best time there’s ever been, a time when a lovable bunch of potent, renegade DJs ruled the airwaves, broadcasting a heady, magical mix of mayhem and music. To be fair, The Boat that Rocked brings a bit of that to life. What it doesn’t do is present a story capable of holding the viewer’s attention for half as long as one of the classic 60s tracks featured in the soundtrack.