There’s no secret behind Kenneth Branagh’s career shift. He followed up his early ambition, as the screen’s premiere interpreter of the Bard, to settle in as a character actor. While casting himself as the hero in his Shakespeare adaptations, he has of late been either a side player or villain in formula-bound movies (staring with “Wild Wild West” and “Rabbit Proof Fence”). In “Pirate Radio,” he returns as a villain – a British official determined to end the broadcasting of the eponymous boat-bound operation. (For the record: since the Brits outlawed rock radio, it has to be broadcasted off land.) As the priggish conservative opposition, Branagh is reliable in another routine project.
“Pirate Radio” (called “The Boat the Rocked” outside the US) has spirit behind it, and plenty of humor, though the filmmakers often squeeze out jokes for fear of losing audience interest. If you look past the radio team’s gags, you don’t find much at all. The loose structure seems to undo itself, perhaps resulting from the film being condensed after critical and commercial failure in the UK. Carl (Tom Sturridge), a youngster hoping to come of age, serves as the youthful viewpoint. Still a virgin, he’s sent aboard by his mother (Branagh ex Emma Thompson) to find himself and cope with having grown up fatherless. There he finds constant partying within the rotating deejay schedule. That’s right, you’ve seen him before: Carl’s practically interchangable with the kid in “Taking Woodstock.”
The head radio voice and big brother of the pack is The Count, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who can turn into rocker dude with ease. Minor deejays fill out the schedule, including a near wordless late-nighter and an early morning old-timer, something of a stowaway until he shows at breakfast one morning. Aside from the growing conflict between the sea-borne rockers (who seems to rival the BBC in listenership) and the law, a legendary deejay, Gavin (Rhys Ifans) returns, to The Count’s irritation; meanwhile, Carl strives for a honey (Talulah Riley, looking as if plucked from a ’60s candystore). But nothing special comes of either: the new deejay’s just another partier joining the pack, while we hardly doubt Carl won’t get the fair-skinned brunette.
The cast appears to have fun in this bit of fabricated nostalgia. And it’s enough for an audience that likes to tune out when tuning in to the old hits. (The soundtrack has tons.) Even Branagh makes nearly all his scenes into comic moments. For some, he may be the comic relief to the growing banality of rocker pranks, which result in a “Dude, Where’s My Stones 45” feeling. They have their own little utopia away from the mainland, where life is muted to oppose the lively ship interior. The landlubber dullards will rise toward the station homebase. Rare is the ocean-set movie in which a vessel doesn’t sink, and here’s no exception – even if a disaster movie turn is about as alien here as Benny Goodman would be to the ship’s radio waves. An even bigger issue: things start sinking by the opening minutes.