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Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

The question, I suppose, is what we should expect from yet another runner from the Pirates of the Caribbean stable? If it’s simply going to rerun the same tired plot, we’ll have Jack on a quest of some kind. There’ll be ships sailing, cutlasses cuttling and general mayhem as required. And soaring above it all, as if high on magic mushrooms, comes Mister Pirate himself, Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow. He’s weirdly disconnected from everything happening around him and yet benignly interested in how it’s all going to turn out. You get the feeling he’s as much a spectator as those of us on the other side of the screen, forced to go through fantastic manoeuvres in the spirit of the moment, supremely confident it will all come out right (sooner or later). Well, On Stranger Tides is your average curate’s egg. For those of you not into idioms, that now means there are some good bits and some bad bits. If you’re prepared to enter a different dimension while the boring bits are on screen, the whole experience is not unpleasing. If you expect a taut and exciting narrative that’s going to pick you up at the beginning and sweep you through to the end, find another film to see. Although, if you’re a Pirates fan, there’s more than enough of Johnny Depp doing his usual schtik to keep you happy. No matter what anyone may tell you to the contrary, Penélope Cruz is just there to help sell the film outside the US, contributing little to hold our interest. Her lack of impact is explained by her wooden English accent which kills any life in the intended banter with Johnny Depp.

Ian McShane reminding us the size of a man's sword is directly proportional to. . .

 

Looking back, director Rob Marshall has done an unnervingly good job of recreating everything that’s so characteristic of a Pirates film (including the boring bits). This is a missed opportunity. There’s a wonderful story buried in the middle of this complicated excess. If we sent Jack and no more than one villain off to chase down the fountain of youth, we would potentially have economy and tension. Let’s just see what elements we have to play with here. The mermaids are wonderful and by far the best thing in the film, but the zombies are woefully underused. There could be lots of magic and, of course, we’re all going to end up at the fountain of youth where someone may get young all over again.

Geoffrey Rush all dolled up for the royal garden party

 

I suppose On Stranger Tides pulls all its punches on the supernatural side to keep the film children friendly. Everything on Blackbeard’s ship could have been genuinely scary. The fact he can raise the dead (and may even have raised himself), manipulate the rigging, summon wind, and belch fire from the bows of the ship makes him one badass pirate. Even better that he can capture the ships he fights and put them in bottles. Now that’s high class magic and this could have been exploited as a serious threat to all and sundry. Yet the zombies are not at all frightening. Rather, they’re quite chatty for dead folk and, even when spitted on swords, seem remarkably even tempered, being prepared to accept a little bondage rather than bite, claw and generally maim any of the living within reach. And Ian McShane. . . Well, let’s say he’s just a big teddybear. This is the least menacing pirate captain of all time. You can see him laughing at the thought, “evil is my middle name” as he stomps around doing bad stuff. It’s a sad reflection that Geoffrey Rush as a reformed Barbossa is more interesting, although perhaps only because he’s lost a leg and has a bad case of sunburn.

Sam Claffin and Astrid Berges-Frisbey enjoying a quiet moment

 

So what are the good bits? I liked the opening sequences in London. Individual scenes threatened to go on too long — inside the court with the King and incompetent guards, and the redundant scene with Keith Richard being the prime examples. There’s the usual sword play, recreating the fight with Will in the smithy. But getting Jack on to the ship and away is all done with reasonable pace. Thereafter the failed mutiny is unconvincing and we have everything on hold until the magnificent sequence to capture a mermaid. Then we drag around the jungle, have a couple of fights and end up in a cave repeating the idea of Jack switching the goblet just as he stole a gold coin at the end of the first race against Barbossa.

 

Except as a mechanism for ensuring no-one will ever return to the fountain, the inclusion of the Spaniards is a waste of time. There’s too much exposition early on, too much talk in the middle and a redundant epilogue at the end. The highlight is the central relationship between Sam Claffin as a man of firm religious convictions and Astrid Berges-Frisbey who plumbs tragic depths as an abused mermaid. This gave emotional heart to an otherwise dead landscape (allowing for the zombies). It’s a shame this one shining thread gets lost in the drab tapestry formed by the rest of the tired plot devices and acting by the numbers.

 

So if you enjoyed the last two Pirates films, this positively zips along, being far shorter at a mere 137 minutes running time. But if you were bored to tears by the last two outings, this is only marginally better and a classic example of how to take a really good story and throw it away. If you want a better overall experience, try the source book, On Stranger Tides by the impressive Tim Powers. Now that really is a good story about pirates and the fountain of youth. If only Hollywood could have made a film based on this rather than trying to shoehorn everything into the Pirate‘s formula.

 

The King’s Speech (2010)

February 16, 2011 Leave a comment

One group of philosophers spends its time thinking about the relationship between the mind and the body, between intellectual functions like memory and the physical brain in which they are stored. Potentially I carry memories of everything I have seen or felt during my life. If I was to add them up, they could represent my character and identity. Except, my identity is something more than a stamp collection of memories. I sort, filter and discard memories. I synthesise and write mental commentaries on what I remember. It all gets organised and reorganised into the rich mixture that is me. I start off with this seemingly irrelevant point because my life overlaps with that of King George VI. I remember him dying and the coronation of the present Queen Elizabeth.

 

There’s an interesting song composed in 1927 when there were fewer people on the planet. Written by Herbert Farjeon, it’s about the man who would briefly become Edward VIII. The memorable line is, “I’ve danced with a man, who’s danced with a girl, who’s danced with the Prince of Wales.” Although I have little real sympathy for the idea of the six degrees of separation, I do feel some knowledge and understanding of the life and times of King George VI — including the pea-soupers that descend in the film and blanket London in murky darkness. Inevitably, these memories colour my view of The King’s Speech (2010).

Colin Firth

 

I would like to see it as simply a story about a man who seeks help from an unconventional therapist. As such, it’s a quite remarkable performance by Colin Firth. He manages to make the stammer feel like a real affliction. You can see his body language shift and change with circumstance, making it easier or more difficult to speak. The only performance I can recall which had a similar power was by Derek Jacobi in the BBC miniseries I, Claudius. Other than that, the hack versions of stuttering tend to be embarrassing to watch with the focus on the more difficult consonants. Colin Firth manages not only to get his whole body into the act, but also to let us see the desperation and fear in his eyes.

Geoffrey Rush

 

As in all good buddy movies, Bertie must have a foil. Playing second fiddle, Geoffrey Rush gives a subtle performance as the self-taught Lionel Logue. It would have been easy to go over the top with eccentricity and actorish hamminess. Yet Rush shows us Logue as a man of great experience, empathy and, with one exception, restraint. He provokes Bertie when he must and thereby brings the man out of his shell. The result is a slow but inexorable journey from quivering jelly to a man who could lead a nation and empire (or at least sound like a man who could).

 

Knowing the relationship is based on fact, Logue did remarkably well to break through protocol and offer what, in today’s terms, would have been cognitive behavioural therapy. He teaches the man to understand his body and come to terms with his emotional problems. Given the history of being ignored by his parents as a child and abused by his nanny, it’s remarkable the prince could withstand the later bullying by his brothers and father. Perhaps more importantly, Logue goes beyond the strict duty of a therapist and becomes Bertie’s friend, something the prince needed more than he knew. In the end, they share the sense of triumph as Bertie slowly becomes fluent when delivering his first broadcast following the declaration of war.

Helena Bonham Carter

 

So younger British readers and others of indeterminate age around the world can stop here. Firth’s performance deserves all the gongs and medals available for distribution. End of story. But I have a minor problem with the film as a version of history. No-one expects a film like this to tell the whole story of the royal family or to chart the progress of the European nations as they conspired to go for the best of two falls, two submissions or a knock-out to decide the winner of World Wars: The Series. In any event, who would want to challenge Edward Fox in Edward and Mrs Simpson which will always stay with me as a phenomenal piece of television? The problem is structural. Once you depart from the strict focus on the Prince and Logue, you could legitimately include a host of background information. This would make the film longer and perhaps unwieldy. So you either compress and distort the background into something that fits the story you want to tell, or you tell a fuller and more rounded version of what actually happened. My own preference would have been the latter.

 

This means I’m breaking the code of the reviewer. I’m supposed to stick strictly to the film as shown on the screen. As the director, this is Tom Hooper’s vision. The critic should not second-guess how the film might have turned out had a different script been available. So here it is in a nutshell: a King-in-waiting creeps into a dark basement where the plaster is peeling paint (as neat a metaphor for his inferiority complex as ever you will find) and is reminded of his inner strength by a commoner from the colonies. In this endeavour, he has the support of his wife played with considerable conviction by Helena Bonham Carter. He must also defy the best intentions of the establishment represented by Derek Jacobi. In the end, he’s strong enough to rewrite his emotional view of the past and becomes a better man who can talk to his children, a nation and an empire with pleasing fluency.

 

The King’s Speech is a heart-warming story of royal folk fighting their own wars to establish and maintain identity. It’s well worth seeing.

 

Fortunately, The King’s Speech has been well received internationally, winning the 2011 Oscars for being the best picture, with Colin Firth declared the best actor, David Seidler recognised for producing the best original screenplay, while Tom Hooper won the prize as the best director. It’s a clean sweep of the major prizes (the home-made British ones don’t really count as we’re supposed to be proud of our own).

 

For a general discussion of whether more historical accuracy was desirable, see Should Historical Films Be Like Documentaries?

 

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