It’s a Working Title film, so we’re talking written and directed again by Brit romcom supremo Richard Curtis, so we’re also talking formula. It worked for Notting Hill, it worked for Love Actually, Bridget Jones, you name it – this was never going to be a challenging film. But it doesn’t need to be – although it takes its very interesting subject matter (pirate radio of the sixties, specifically Radio Caroline) far too flimsily, it never masks its intention to have a good old romp and to tick every Working Title box ahead of other considerations. It helps that the cast is a knockout: Bill Nighy (cooler than cast members half his age), Philip Seymour Hoffman and Nick Frost shine, although similar stalwarts Kenneth Branagh and Jack Davenport are oddly underwritten, and in the former’s case ultimately badly misused.
It’s the story of Carl (the pretty Tom Sturridge), sent by his mother (Emma Thompson in a barely recognisible cameo) to Radio Rock (read: Radio Caroline) to ‘find himself’ (read: come of age). This he does amidst the chaos of the lives of the pirate DJs, and it’s a good laugh. Curtis glosses over the social relevance of pirate radio in the 60s and its influence on social change, partly by cheapening the government’s response to it (Kenneth Branagh’s character comes right out of Blackadder, and Davenport’s character’s name is Twatt), but also partly by making the film pretty one-note. These are lovable rogues, regardless of the damage they cause one another (Ifans in particular), rescuing staid post-war Britain from itself. We’re drawn into the music, but never really into the era – this we see by fleeting montages in cafes, garages, bedrooms and parks, but we never get a chance to join the participants and see the impact these people really have on them.
The narrative is clumsy and unfocused – is Carl’s attempt to find his unnamed father important or isn’t it? Is Twatt going to find his conscience or isn’t he? Is Ifans’ & Hoffman’s rivalry going to be fleshed out or isn’t it? And this is a distraction. But it’s also a film chock full of charismatic leads (and in Sturridge’s case future leads) who are given room to ham it up as much as they like. It’s not unfair to say it’s an interconnected series of well delivered comedy sketches with not much of a plot, but the characters are just so likeable you are dragged willingly along.
The ending is never going to be happy-ever-after, but that’s ok too. You know it’s not going to be dark, it isn’t even going to be bittersweet – noone even dies when the boat eventually sinks. But by then you’ve had such a fun time you have no choice but to put that to one side and enjoy the film for what it is – enjoyable fluff. 7/10 (for sheer charm)