Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

By Devan Scott

Some of the most frustrating movies to watch are the ones in which you can see how easily they could have been so much better. Such is the case with The Boat That Rocked. The film has a considerable amount going for it, to be sure; the cast is absolutely stellar, featuring the likes of Bill Nighy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Nick Frost, Kenneth Branagh, and Rhys Ifans, it carries an interesting premise, evokes the time period in question very well, and nobody can argue that it’s not energetically filmed and paced. It’s a pity, then, that the end result is not only an uneven mess, but a retread of other, better films about the same time period.

But before I begin with the proverbial list of grievances, I’ll take a minute to explain what the film’s actually about. Set in Britain circa the late sixties when rock’n’roll was virtually nonexistent on official English airwaves and was therefore broadcast on a number of illicit underground radio stations instead, it concerns one such station. Named Rock Radio and located in the middle of the North Sea on a fishing vessel to prevent government intervention, it does nothing but broadcast all rock, all the time.

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As in Almost Famous, we see this strange world through the eyes of a newcomer, Carl. Sent aboard by his mother in an attempt to ‘set him straight’, he receives only minimal character development and essentially remains a blank slate. This attempt to make him an everyman type deprives the film of an interesting central character, and it suffers heavily as a result. Far more interesting are the characters surrounding him; the inimitable Bill Nighy all but steals the show as Quentin, the ship’s lovably eccentric captain. He’s nearly matched by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Rhys Ifans as on-again-off-again rival radio hosts Count and Gavin and Chris O’Dowd as Simon, all of whom provide fine performances. Lastly, Nick Frost provides some fun comic relief in a role that feels perfectly tailored to him. The film’s best scenes almost invariably involve the interplay that goes on between these characters.

The film hits the ground running and doesn’t let up pacing-wise until about halfway through. This ensures that the film never really becomes drawn-out or boring, but it also prevents it from ever stopping to develop the characters past simple caricatures or more deeply reflecting on the issues presented. Dramatic and comedic set pieces come and go at such a rate that the whole plot begins feeling disjointed. The fact that the film fails to find the balance between comedy and more serious matters found in Almost Famous and even Spinal Tap doesn’t help matters; on the rare instances that the movie drops its comedic tone and attempts dramatic weight, it’s nearly impossible to take seriously due to the film’s insistence on milking the comedy out of all but the most dire situations.

These tendencies to veer too heavily towards comedy and rush plot developments practically ruin one of the film’s major plotlines: that of the government’s repeated attempts to foil Rock Radio. A sizable chunk of screentime is set aside for these scenes, starring Kenneth Branagh as Alistair Dormandy, a curmudgeonly government suit who harbors an irrational hatred for rock music. More than any other character featured, Dormandy is left frustratingly underdeveloped. It’s never explained exactly why he’s willing to go on such a crusade against rock music, and his characterization is so weak that the he ends up being simply a cartoonish plot device.

In fact, this would-be important plotline doesn’t even have any great affect on the central plot of the film until the beginning of the final act, in which the story shifts gears and slows down somewhat. It’s also where the whole narrative finally falls apart as, out of the blue, a protracted sequence involving a sinking ship that could rival The Titanic’s for sheer bloat begins. All at once, about a half dozen plot threads are dropped, everyone starts acting out-of-character, and the abrupt tonal shifts between whimsy and drama move from annoying to downright jarring. It’s a major letdown of an ending to an already disappointing film.

The central problem of the film boils down to the characters. Despite some worthy performances, the characters and relationships between these characters are all either woefully underdeveloped or played completely for laughs. As a result, it’s impossible to care about or sympathize with them or their plight. The characters in Spinal Tap were more sympathetic, for crying out loud.

If the characters were developed beyond caricatures, the pacing troubles sorted out, and a balance between dramatic and comedic elements found, this film could have easily been a very good or great sixties period piece in the vein of Almost Famous. It’s a shame that the final product didn’t live up to what it could have easily been.

Okay, I admit it: I got annoyed when they used Won't Get Fooled Again in a movie set in the sixties.
This review brought to you from a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet.


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