Whatever the drawbacks of its source material (it’s based on a carnival ride at Disneyworld, after all), the first Pirates of the Caribbean film (The Curse of the Black Pearl, 2003) was at least proficient entertainment with some good actors thrown into the mix. In extending the franchise, the filmmakers have crammed in a whole lot more attractively-shot theme park diversions but seem to have lost a few elements that (for me, at least) make for a good film watching experience.
Let’s start with the actors. Johnny Depp has some good acting in him, but as Captain Jack Sparrow, it’s largely sacrificed here to a broad caricature of fey piratical fecklessness which would be (indeed, is) enjoyable as the comic relief, but when your character is made the focus of the script, becomes a little wearing. Unfortunately, the other lead pirate (Will Turner, played by Orlando Bloom) lacks the charisma or even the two-dimensionality of fellow youthful naïf Guybrush Threepwood. There’s still a wealth of good character actors from the first film (Jonathan Pryce, Jack Davenport) — with Stellan Skarsgård and Tom Hollander added into the mix for this film — but they are largely squandered here, leaving only Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Swann as the unlikely candidate for most charismatic, and she does at least display some gumption, though not when the plot requires her to be girly (such as when Davenport, Bloom and Depp are fighting each other and she is petulantly tossing pebbles).
This points to another issue I have with the film, which is that the screenwriting is generally lazy. Just like some of the characters, there’s too much of this world which is required to function differently depending on the exigencies of the immediate needs of the narrative. Suspension of disbelief is one thing (this is a fantasy world after all), but the film is constructed so much as a series of cumulative setpieces that it doesn’t hang together much as coherent narrative. There’s a lot of plot too, such that a momentary lapse in concentration here and there left me confused about what the characters were now doing. In précis though, Will and Elizabeth are arrested at the start of the film by Hollander’s Lord Beckett but can gain their freedom by capturing Captain Jack’s compass. The question of what it does is such a perfunctory MacGuffin that the screenwriters essentially have Bloom’s character say just this (on being questioned on its purpose by Elizabeth, he replies “Does it even matter?” before moving swiftly on). Meanwhile, Captain Jack is after a key which the literate will have figured out opens the titular chest, rather neatly linked both figuratively and literally to the film’s key dead man and villain, Davy Jones (enjoyably played by Bill Nighy in a Scottish accent and obscured by plenty of CGI).
It’s not that the plot is confusing, it’s that it’s deployed merely to set up each successive setpiece, leading to a deadening of affect as each is surpassed by yet another that creates plenty of occasion for derring-do, but seems to add up to very little. There is, buried deep within, some critiques of imperialism in murderous search of lucre, as scenes with Lord Beckett, chairman of the rapacious East India Company (a real historical entity with a very real and deadly historical legacy), are played out in front of vast maps of the world which are literally being painted as he speaks. Captain Jack at one (very fleeting) point finds signs of the East India Co.’s involvement with some local cannibals, its crossbones-like logo imprinted on a jar of paprika. But none of this is really followed up, as the film quickly jettisons any interest in such critiques. There’s the merchandising to think of, after all.
Though another respect in which the film is troubling is pointed to by those cannibals. Quite aside from the scene in the ravine where the remaining crew of Captain Jack’s ship are split into two dangling cages and the one containing all the pirates with any ethnicity is swiftly despatched, there’s a worrying undercurrent of broad racial stereotyping. The cannibals who have engineered this cage scenario for Captain Jack’s crew have also dressed him up as a white god-like figure and in most respects act just like the kind of stereotypes of barbaric yet simple-minded tribal peoples at which even the similarly retrogressive Indiana Jones series would blanch. Elsewhere, black people are portrayed as mystic bayou-dwelling voodoo people, so it’s safe to say that the film wins no awards for subtlety, and it makes my objections to the racial othering in the recent Olympus Has Fallen (2013) seem almost quaintly misplaced.
If this all adds up to a film which is misguided, it doesn’t mean that it’s entirely without any redeeming qualities. Despite a bloated running time, it moves along at a fair pace (it could scarcely fail to do so), and Bill Nighy energises it whenever he’s on screen. It just suffers from being needlessly lazy, but then it was surely made in as desperate a search for lucrative payout as the East India Company within the film itself. With a bit more thought put in at the start of the enterprise, something so much better could have resulted.
Next up: The series picks up a bit with the third instalment, At World’s End (2007).
Director Gore Verbinski; Writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio; Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski; Starring Johnny Depp, Keira Knightley, Orlando Bloom, Bill Nighy; Length 151 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 23 April 2013.