Ship of Fools
by Julien Allen
Dir. Richard Curtis, U.K., Universal Pictures
Richard Curtis, creator of Blackadder and Mr. Bean, is one of the most powerful people in British show business. His laudable and dedicated career-long work for the charity Comic Relief, which has gained a political dimension since his involvement with the pressure group Live 8, has given him one of the country's most illustrious contact books; his forthcoming knighthood has almost certainly already been minted. Of course he has also written and/or directed a number of highly successful films destined for the U.S. market, among them Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’s Diary and Love Actually. As such, it is incumbent on us to take him seriously as an auteur of sorts, especially since the world he has created through his movies (Curtis’s Britain, with all the cracks papered over, like a tourist board video) is so vividly singular.
How ironic, then, that his latest offering, a nostalgic rock ‘n’ roll movie called Pirate Radio (original British title: The Boat That Rocked) might have been saved from shipwreck if only Curtis had gone back to his roots and written it as a sitcom instead. Set amongst an eclectic group of rakish men on a boat in the North Sea called “Radio Rock,” the film purports to be a lighthearted testament to the golden age of pirate radio, when young outlaw DJs broadcast 24-hour “rock and pop” from offshore locations to avoid stringent licensing laws. The central character is a young male ingénue, Carl (played by Tom Sturridge), who, during a stint on the boat spanning the length of the film, receives a somewhat rose-tinted education in all things swinging and Sixties.
Once we have been spoon-fed reams of portentous introductory text explaining all of this (like George Lucas, Curtis clearly finds it hard to dissimulate exposition in the script itself, or even just let the pictures speak for themselves), we are entitled to expect that the plot and characters, when they appear, might bear some tangible resemblance to real life. Well, not exactly: this is a wholly imaginary world, like a teenager’s dream—or more accurately, Richard Curtis’s bedroom “rock and pop” fantasy, where he gets to force everyone to listen to his record collection—in which nothing makes sense or is remotely believable. One character, named Thick Kevin, is so stupid that he doesn’t know who Robin Hood or Jesus are; another is cursed with the unfortunate surname “Twatt”—a joke that’s persistently re-used in the vain hope that it might gain strength from repetition; a third character manages to seduce 30 women at the same time. The list of improbabilities goes on. None of the humor derives from history or reality; it is merely random, dyspeptic gag writing. And yet most of these objections might not have arisen had the characters, situations, and jokes in question been written as if in a reality-bending modern British TV sitcom like Father Ted or Simon Pegg’s Spaced. Though it’s still doubtful the results would have been granted a second season.
In all fairness, it should be said that there is much to enjoy in Pirate Radio, notably a few set pieces in which Curtis the writer really comes into his own (for example, a wedding broadcast live from the deck; a rousing speech to the troops backed by the strains of Holst’s Jupiter in which each man comes up with a good reason not to abandon ship; a hippy DJ prepared to drown rather than relinquish his favourite Grateful Dead LP), as well as that overarching sense of bonhomie that infects all Curtis productions and makes watching them akin to eating a big cheap candy bar. Two performances stand out from the crowd (and in doing so, underline the film’s essential fault line): Philip Seymour Hoffman is unsurprisingly exceptional as revered DJ “The Count,” providing a characterization more complex than the script deserves, one that belongs in a wry satire. He commands maximum attention when on-screen, as does Kenneth Branagh, whose own films Peter’s Friends (1992) and In the Bleak Midwinter (1995) belong firmly in Curtis country. Branagh’s turn here as a moral crusading minister determined to crush pirate radio, revels in caricature and a particular style of British farce; he fulminates in the corridors, pencil-moustache twitching, not unlike those numerous Nazis he has brought to the screen, in particular his Reynard Heidrich in the Wannsee conference recreation Conspiracy. Oh, and a mention is required for the records themselves, which were for the most part created 40 years ago by other people, and are terrific.
Nevertheless, a severely unfortunate side effect of the film’s teenage-fantasy geekery is its almost medieval attitude towards women. It’s made clear from the outset that women are not allowed on the boat—the sole exception being a badly dressed lesbian, Felicity (Katherine Parkinson) who cooks for everyone and does precisely nothing else—unless they visit on weekends to have sex with the passengers. While the DJs are held up as the very pinnacle of creative genius, collegiality, and sexual attraction (though spectacularly unattractive, every woman paraded in front of them lasts 20 seconds before putting out), every single woman in the film is either a slut, a groupie, a promiscuous old hag (thank you, Emma Thompson), a frigid toff, or, in the many picture-postcard inserts of listeners cherishing the radio’s output, a schoolgirl, a go-go girl, or a sexy nurse. There’s even a young lady seen numerous times listening to the radio on the toilet, panties down, in some severely mixed-up semi-sexual appreciation of it all. The women of Pirate Radio have no voice, no story, no jokes, and no real function other than as passive reflections of the brilliance and all-around cool of the men. This attitude culminates in the crucial appearance of Mad Men’s January Jones, the television actress of the moment, playing a character written as so breathtakingly heartless and devious that it makes Fatal Attraction seem like feminist propaganda. As if that isn’t enough, one supposedly hilarious set piece involves rape (where a character is encouraged to lose his virginity by being “swapped in” to another sexual liaison when the light is off), all depicted with the oom-pah-pah tone of a Carry On film.
One could, at a severe stretch, take a relaxed view of this (after all—it was the Sixties, the film seems to insist) if the tone of the film were not so aggressively celebratory. It’s as if Curtis is jubilantly reliving his own hedonistic shagging days with dewy-eyed fondness, when what emerges instead, foghorn-loud and clear, is his bespectacled, Poindexterish terror of all things female. In real life, Richard Curtis is married to one of Sigmund Freud’s granddaughters. I imagine her couch is severely worn out by now.