Review - The Boat That Rocked

Brisbane Times, 9 April 2009
By Sandra Hall

In the mid-1960s, Britain was swinging but its radio stations were not. Still working to the staunchly moralistic guidelines set down by its founder, Lord Reith, the BBC was declining to get excited by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the other bands galvanising pop fans all over the country.

It rationed them to just a few hours of rock'n'roll a week. And so, pirate radio was born, with a mission to fill the gap. Anchored in the North Sea, beyond the reach of the country's draconian broadcasting laws, pirate radio ships began blasting out the forbidden sounds 24 hours a day.

Australian DJs, already blooded in the free-for-all that characterised our own commercial radio industry, were quick to get jobs on the ships. But in 'The Boat That Rocked', Richard Curtis's celebration of the era, we have to make do with a New Zealander - Rhys Darby from 'Flight Of The Conchords'. In a back-handed tribute to the antipodean pirates, he's cast as Angus "The Nut" Nutsford, whose work at the microphone has earned him a reputation as the most irritating man in Britain.

The film itself is not irritating, although it's so relentlessly cheery that it could have been. Curtis, who wrote and directed it, has built himself into a feelgood industry in recent years and he's taken a lot of actors along with him. Chief among them is Bill Nighy , who plays the ship's captain Quentin, a dandyfied figure whose elegance is only slightly marred by a tendency to whinny like a horse when amused, which is most of the time. He's a calming presence. He has to be, since he presides over a group who earn their living by exercising their egos to the utmost.

Curtis prepared his cast with weeks of rehearsal time aboard the boat, the aim being to engender a holiday camp atmosphere that could be transferred faithfully to the screen, and it works pretty well. The banter flows easily and when it slows, there's always the music. With more than 50 songs listed in the credits, the story doesn't really unfold, it washes over you in successive waves of nostalgia.

Nighy looks especially delighted by it all - as he should, since rock'n'roll has been very good to him. It was his droll turn as an elderly rocker in Curtis's 'Love Actually' that sent his career rocketing to its heady heights. And it's fun just watching him prance around the deck in his cruise wear. Typical of the film's loose way with the facts is the inordinate amount of sunshine that beams down on the ship's North Sea anchorage.

Nonetheless, Curtis has gone so far as to lash together a couple of rudimentary subplots to keep the whole thing on course. The main one centres on the efforts of Kenneth Branagh, who takes the broad in broadcasting to the limit by shamelessly acting up as a wowserish government minister. He wears a Hitlerish moustache and delivers his lines with Basil Fawlty-like fanaticism. To him, the ship is a "sewer" - a word he spits out with a viperish hiss while briefing Jack Davenport, who bears the brunt of his rage, having been ordered to find a legal way to close the station. To add to his misery, this luckless character is burdened with the name Twatt.

In other words, the script could never be accused of sophistication. Curtis looks back at the period through the star-struck eyes of the youngster he was at the time. Hence, we're piloted through the action by Carl (Tom Sturridge), Quentin's 18-year-old godson who's joined the crew of Radio Rock for some work - and life - experience. He's eager to lose his virginity, which may seem unlikely, given the fact that he's heterosexual and apart from Felicity (Katherine Parkinson), the cook, who's lesbian, his shipmates are all male. But Curtis sidesteps this problem by reinventing history. Unlike the originals, his DJs are treated to regular visiting days, when their groupies come to call. And Nick Frost's Dave, whose flabby physique is no deterrent to his many fans, is full of advice.

There are times when the film borders on being an ocean-going wet dream but some slightly more subtle pleasures are to be found amid the jostling that goes on between the many outsize egos on board. The film's best bits are supplied by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who demonstrates his uniquely silky brand of bluster as The Count, the station's American import - a character based on Emperor Rosko, one of the era's most memorable performers. The Count is secure in his spot as the ship's No. 1 performer until Rhys Ifans enters the picture as the peacockish Gavin, who's recently returned from the US with ideas of resuming his old role as head boy. Their subsequent battle for supremacy adds sparkle to the film's second half.

And a good thing, too, for the 135-minute running time puts you at severe risk of cabin fever. These two successfully see you through, aided by their playlists and the good humour that keeps bubbling along no matter how choppy the storyline.

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