It is England in the late 1960s and Radio Rock is a fictional pirate radio station broadcasting 24 hours of pop music from a boat sitting in international waters. The boat is staffed by an eccentric and diverse group of music-loving DJs who just want to share their tunes with the grateful public who could otherwise only get their fix of rock ‘n’ roll from a miserable two hours of programming on BBC radio. The Boat That Rocked is very much a tribute to the free spirited anti-authoritarian attitude of the pirate broadcasters during an era of significant social, political and cultural upheaval. However, in its attempt to capture a sense of time and place it does not completely hang together. There are a couple of narrative strands running throughout The Boat That Rocked but otherwise it is a very hit and miss episodic film.
Writer/director Richard Curtis is a bit of an institution having written the various incarnations of the Blackadder television series and many classic modern romantic comedies including Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones’s Diary. However, Curtis does not seem to be having nearly as much luck with the films that he writes as well as directs. Love Actually contained too many characters and too many extraneous storylines, which are also the major problems with The Boat That Rocked. The start of the film in particular is very poor with disorientating quick edits and a flurry of activity to rapidly introduce the main characters, and distractingly shaky camera work to mimic the movement of the boat. There are one too many wacky montages of the crew and their listeners, and Kenneth Branagh and Jack Davenport (TV’s Coupling and the Pirates of the Caribbean films) are not funny as the over-the-top square and diabolical government men who are trying to shut down the pirate radio stations. The Boat That Rocks also suffers from a chauvinistic undercurrent where women are exchangeable objects of desire for the men who are frequently alone out at sea. The only female on board is the boat’s cook and the repeated gag about her is that she is only allowed on board because she is a lesbian. The sexist humour of The Boat That Rocked isn’t so much offensive as just lame.
Nevertheless, The Boat That Rocked does eventually settle down and delivers some of the feel good moments that you would expect from a Richard Curtis film. The various scenes depicting the interaction between the crewmembers begin to work once the film stops trying so hard to make them so zany. Bill Nighy, who in other films frequently overacts, is great and the overall strong cast includes Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rhys Ifans, Nick Frost (Hot Fuzz) and Rhys Darby (The Flight of the Conchords) as the various DJs. Finally, as you would expect from a film that is set in the late 1960s and features a cast of characters who love music, The Boat That Rocked has a magnificent soundtrack.