Pirate Radio

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


            A few hours ago it would have been hard to imagine the possibility of a dull movie with Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Kenneth Branagh, and Bill Nighy; but then I went to “Pirate Radio.” This is a movie with a nearly bullet proof premise: it is 1966 and the BBC has declared Rock music immoral. That doesn’t sit well with Quentin (Bill Nighy), a snappy sophisticate who comes up with a plan. He will broadcast all 24 hours of each day from a refitted tanker ship off the coast of England in the North Sea. He will feed rock music from his floating juke box to 25 million pop-starved Britons. And the best part of all this is that it actually happened. That’s a tough premise to mess up, but this gang of filmmakers manages to do it.

            We meet a handsome young boy named Carl (Tom Sturridge) who has been sent aboard ship to his godfather Quentin by his mother for safekeeping as punishment for his teenaged misbehavior. A teenage rebel of minor proportions has been sentenced to a term in Animal House on the sea. Contained in this ship of delinquent D.J.s is as uninteresting a group of characters as you are likely to meet in any movie this year.

            Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays a slothful American hired by Quentin as ship’s captain; he seems for a moment to be the one who will wring the laughs from the crew as dorm mother. What happens instead is that the demented crew members turn into fraternity house inmates who, when not on duty at the beloved transmitter, think and talk only about sex and farting. Some pretty good movies have dealt with those subjects recently – usually starring Seth Rogen – and they have been funny because they have either plots or great characters. A movie can work without one of those, but not without both.

            We have here the young virgin boy, the overweight lunk who fancies himself a stud, the lesbian crew member, the idealist, and a few others who easily escape my mind at the moment. None of them is connected in any funny or appealing way with any of the others. They connect only with a boatload of girls delivered for an afternoon of personal indulgence, moldy jokes, and fraternal clichés.

            Kenneth Branagh plays Sir Alistair Dormandy, the government leader of the reprisal force who is determined to shut the ship down even if he has to sink it. Emma Thompson enlivens things by arriving, seaborne, in a splendid array of clothes and gestures.
            Finally, as if in desperation at their own failure to draw laughter, the filmmakers create a scene straight out of 1942 Dunkirk along with an ocean catastrophe that produces as much noise and wave action as “Titanic.” If the movie had been either funny or appealing, we would have cheered the Dunkirkian rescue; but it wasn’t, and we didn’t.


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