The Review: There used to be a few well held and rarely disputed rules about certain genres, including that there’s never really been any good pirate movies (as in movies with pirates, not dodgy market copies of Jurassic Park III filmed on a shakycam and transferred to VHS), and that to make a film based on a theme park attraction was tantamount to insanity. Then in 2003 Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl arrived, got Johnny Depp an Oscar nomination and scared up a huge amount of money. Unsurprisingly, two sequels followed, which raked in even more pirate booty, but there was an inescapable feeling of quality, well, escaping. The third film especially, which starts with child hangings and then proceeds to kill of most of its peripheral characters as an afterthought, really should have killed the franchise stone dead, but it seems that people can’t get enough of Captain Jack Sparrow, so other characters have been cast aside and Captain Jack gets to take centre stage.
He’s not quite on his own; returning alongside Cap’n Jack are Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), now a little legless and in the Royal Navy; Kevin McNally as loyal sidekick Gibbs, chugging along in much the same manner as the first three films; and Captain Teague (Keith Richards), repeating his cameo as Sparrow Sr. from the last, ill-advised entry. But never fear, there’s a whole host of new characters to make up for the loss of Orlando, Keira et al, including Penélope Cruz as blast from Jack’s past Angelica and Ian McShane as pirate legend Blackbeard. Those paying attention at the end of the last movie will remember some nonsense being spouted about the Fountain of Youth, and that’s where we’re setting sail for this time, picking up more waifs and strays along the way, including a young priest and a feisty mermaid that will make you wonder quite why, salary considerations aside, they got rid of Orlando and Keira in the first place.
Director Rob Marshall replaces Gore Verbinski this time out, and it’s another change that leaves you pining for the original. While the third Pirates might have been offensively bad in places, it was at least never offensively dull, which is more than can be said for this entry. Sparrow, Barbossa, Blackbeard and even some random Spaniards all trek around the high seas looking for a couple of MacGuffins in addition to finding the Fountain of Youth, but since Jack’s been there before there never feels like a significant obstacle to overcome. On top of that, everyone else’s motivations are murky and no one really seems that interested in finding what they’re supposed to be looking for anyway; if the characters can’t invest in the quest at hand, it doesn’t leave much hope for the audience. If this film has achieved anything, it’s that despite lopping over half an hour off the bloated length of At World’s End, this still feels about forty minutes too long.
There’s also a problem with Captain Jack himself. Being odd on the periphery while others drove the plot worked well, but now Jack’s the driving force somehow everything else feels just a little off kilter. It’s not helped by the writers forgetting what made Jack so appealing in the first place, but the joy of lines from the first film such as “I think we’ve all arrived at a very special place. Spiritually, ecumenically, gramatically…” have been replaced by general oddness which might raise the odd chuckle at the time but fails to linger any longer than a few seconds. Suggestions of romantic tension with Cruz fall flat through a lack of both romance and tension and very few others seem to have their heart in it, certainly not McShane or Rush on this occasion. There’s some interest early on before the plot wheels start to grind to a halt, and a couple of the set pieces entertain briefly, but On Stranger Tides is just a little too strange to have lasting appeal. Remember that rule that there’s no good pirate movies? It seems that Curse Of The Black Pearl was just the exception to that rule.
Why see it at the cinema: The mermaid sequence is pretty reasonable and there’s as much impressive scenery as ever, but this feels oddly small in scale compared to previous entries.
Why see it in 3D: My wife watched large parts of the film without the 3D glasses, and other than appearing brighter it made very little difference. Apart from the occasional thrust of a cutlass there’s very little here to justify the higher ticket price.
The Score: 4/10
The Review: Just how British a film is it possible to make, if you put your mind to it? Well, to start with most British films looking to sell to a worldwide audience avoid the contemporary and select a specific period. Brits are a sucker for a triumph over adversity stories, so it would be good to structure your story around that. We’re also fascinated with the class divide, so try to illustrate the difference between the common man and the nobility, then great – make it royalty, and so much the better. There ought to be some sort of basis in fact as well, as we have such a noble history we have no need to invent new stories when all of the old ones are so effective.
Right, you’ll now need a thoroughly British cast. Colin Firth was born in a Union Jack nappy and was fed scones and jam for most of his childhood; there is none more British in his age range and with last year’s A Single Man, the full extent of his awesome acting talents truly became apparent. Suffice to say he’s at least as good here as the King of England in waiting. Now, we’ll need someone equally British to portray his wife, so you’ll be wanting Helena Bonham Carter as the woman that most of us know as The Queen Mother. Throw in such British luminaries as Michael Gambon as the current king and Derek Jacobi as the Archbishop of Canterbury, and you’re now well on your way to a British classic.
But you’ll want something to help your film stand out from the long line of British films that have gone before it. So how about some Antipodean tension to vary things up a little? The thrust of the narrative is driven by Geoffrey Rush’s speech therapist, who uses unconventional methods to achieve his results, and the core of the drama is very much about the two and their tentative interaction, verbally sizing each other up and slowly but surely finding their common ground. While Firth gets all the theatrics, Rush has the quiet certainty but still gets to show some range. Firth also gets to spark at another Aussie, Guy Pearce, who Englishes up as the distant and disaffected brother David, soon to become king himself. (And don’t worry about the Britishness quota; Jennifer Ehle evens things out as Rush’s very Australian wife.)
Well, you’ve composed a very British concept, script and cast, ideally you can get yourself worked up about something that would only bother the middle classes (the 17 F words in the script originally earned a 15 certificate, now contentiously downgraded to a 12A). With a British director who’s got experience of everything from Prime Suspect through Eastenders to Byker Grove and who creates just the right mix of stiff upped-lipped tone and gentle humour, and who marshals his cast to consistent excellent, you’ve got all the ingredients in place to make the most British film in years. Like everything else British worth its fish and chips, quality runs through this like letters in a stick of seaside rock. It manages to be entirely sympathetic over the stammering issue, rather than playing it for cheap laughs, and the stakes are raised with the ever increasing background tension with the threat of Herr Hitler and his armies growing ever more prominent, but at the end of the day, it’s about a man and his ability to get his words out. If you want a safe night out of top quality entertainment, then The King’s Speech is the film for you – just don’t expect anything too revolutionary.
Why see it at the cinema: It’s your patriotic duty to hand over your cash for this one, packed full of people who may not have been to the cinema since The Full Monty. I hope you can get a seat.
The Score: 9/10