No 371 - Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
Director - Gore Verbinski
It is a brave move to base a film on a funfair ride. It is not the most common of occurrences, I can only think of one other attempt. So thank goodness that this ended up much better than The Haunted Mansion.
But where Disney's ghost train had a plot of sorts (a tragic tale of possession on a wedding night) Pirates of the Caribbean didn't. It was a series of tableaux... showing Pirate towns and battles and the weird skeletal shipwreck. POTC took elements of those visuals and made a really interesting story. Keeping enough little nods (the dog with keys, the skeleton pirates and the excellent jaunty song) to merit the film's link to the ride without forcing a structure which doesn't work
The story is wonderful, set in the 17th (or maybe early 18th) century as the cliches of piracy are shown. After all these are proper grimacing rum swilling pirates who go out and kidnap governors' daughters. Whilst they may be cliche they have fallen foul of a curse on some Aztec gold (again, another cliche) and have been punished by a decade of becoming skeletons in the moonlight. This is the nice touch and is beautifully presented and intelligently applied.... the pirates are trying to cancel out the curse and move on with being general no-good-nics but throughout this they also get embroiled with Elizabeth Swann, the local Blacksmith who loves her and the Pirate clan's former captain.
Let us begin with our protagonists..... Kiera Knightly and Orlando Bloom are not the most exciting of actors, they're quite insipid, especially when compared to the bonkers world which Pirates inhibits.
Luckily, the film introduces one of the greatest show stealing supporting characters of recent times. Captain Jack Sparrow. The man has already become an iconic cult hero. He worked wonders on Johnny Depp, finally thrusting him into the proper A list where he belongs and he made pirates cool again (though the child part of me likes to think that pirates were always cool). Captain Jack is a preposterous human being. He sways and swaggers. He is drunk. He is a rock star. At one point they hint that actually he got brain damage from heat stroke.... but I think that is just the way it works.
So whilst Elizabeth Swann just wants to get home and Will Turner wants to rescue Elizabeth. Whilst the Pirates need to return all the stolen gold as well as a blood sacrifice... Jack just wants his ship back. He wishes to steal the Black Pearl from his mutineering cursed former crew.
Jack's selfishness makes him a fascinating character. He twists and turns. He lies. He double and triple crosses. He changes allegiances so often that it is hard to know what his motivation really is. But, at the heart of it all he is a nice chap. He wants to do the right thing, as long as the right thing sees him in a better position than he was prior to it. This film sees Jack as very much a supporting role.... His story flits and swerves (much like him) through the duller protagonists' stories. The issue with it being that Depp was a resounding success and so future films begin to focus more and more on him and make him wilder and wilder. Whereas here, from the second he steps off his sinking ship, he is the perfect foil to the stiffness and formality of our two leads. At least Orlando Bloom seems to start enjoying himself once he becomes a Pirate.
Jack's appearance also makes other characters more interesting. I think Depp's insanity put them on edge and caused them to up their game. Now there are some great actors in this. Namely the wonderful Jonathan Pryce as Governer Swann and Jack Davenport makes an excellently rigid Naval commodore - full of pomp and arrogance. However, whilst the scenes between these two and the two protagonists are beautiful to look at (and they are.... I would give anything to have been aristocracy in that age, such beautiful beautiful wonderful clothes) they are just dull. Whereas you throw in Captain Jack to the fold and the scenes become more interesting.
It helps that they usually involve a mildly ridiculous set piece and swashbuckling. SWASHBUCKLING! What a wonderful thing to have back on our screens. And yes it has now been sexxed up and people leap and get flipped and perform acrobatics but at the very heart of it there are buckles and they're being swashed. However, even with spurts of action or insanity, the best scenes come from the Pirates.
Whether in the raucous violent pirate towns (how awesome does Tortuga look?) or in the crews themselves - they're excellent. Jack's crew includes the most bonkers group of misfits (a trained parrot who speaks on behalf of a tongueless man, a surly midget) and rising star of 2009 Zoe Saldana. They also have Kevin McNally as Gibbs.... the first mate (I guess....) who has an interesting story which was never told. In that, the first time we meet him he works for the Navy, then he becomes a pirate.... Incidentally did anyone ever watch a really shit sitcom called Dad? Because that is how I knew Kevin McNally.... was really weird to see him in the cinema.
The villainous pirates (or... more villainous as none of them are exactly law abiding citizens) are led by the fabulous Geoffrey Rush as Barbossa. He is an elegant man, dressed in pirate chic and sporting a horrible mousey beard. I like pirate Chic, and Barbossa is far more realistic than... say... Hook (though I'd love to dress like Hook). He beautifully straddles charm and menace, his character is the type of person you could easily imaging leading cut throats. Most of the pirates are also proper savage. Growling evil murderers who are either all out aggressive or really rather mad. Either way, they're the right level of scary.... Especially when they transform.
I love the transformations.... that is the film's real skill... the seamless and elegant way that the pirates turn from human to zombie as they pass through moonlight. It is so smoothly done and the first time you see it properly (rather than a fleeting arm) is a tour de force. A dizzying race through the ship. The camera twisting and turning and leaving the viewer as confused as Elizabeth must be.
The whole scene is great.... from the quiet beginnings of Barbossa's dining room through to the ship in all its moonlit glory.
One thing the POTC franchise has always succeeded in was their depiction of cursed crews.
It is not a perfect film. Some of the important characters are dull beyond belief. However, there are so many inventive flashes of inspiration masterfully done that this is a joy to watch. It feels like a proper matinee film. Mixing romance and comedy and horror with the derring do and sense of adventure.
It is, essentially, pure escapism. But isn't that really the concept of cinema?
I did also watch Part 2 but I'll blog it in the am....