My critical introduction to this film series was via Mark Kermode’s ever more vituperative rants on Simon Mayo’s and his BBC Radio 5 Live film review podcast, and needless to say, hearing his opinion did not engender much of a desire to see the films. There it probably would have ended for me, were it not for my wife’s desire to re-watch them. On this third instalment, I’ve heard plenty of subsequent opinion on both sides of the divide, some saying that the third film is even worse than the second, while other friends consider it not just the best of the franchise but a great film in its own right. If I can’t entirely embrace that challenging position, I am certainly of the opinion that it is a far superior film to Dead Man’s Chest (2006). The real surprise is that the two films were made back-to-back by the same cast and crew, given how differently they turned out.
Where the second film is all perfunctory exposition combined with propulsive forward momentum, the third takes a bit more time with the character interactions. Geoffrey Rush, a highlight of the first film, returns as Captain Hector Barbossa, and assumes from Bill Nighy the mantle of most charismatic screen presence (though Nighy remains, and is still enjoyable). At any moment, he is happy to break into gurning piratical ‘yarrrrs’, a whirligig of barely-suppressed self-mockery, and is as such a perfect fit to the essential campness of the whole series (a quality rather missed from the po-faced second film, Depp aside). The plot is even more labyrinthine, yet there’s (admirably, in my opinion) less attempt to try to explain it to the viewer: you either take it or you leave it. In fact, I’m wary of trying to summarise it, though suffice to say it extends the conceit of Davy Jones’ locker with more edge-of-the-earth questing for familial salvation. In short, it’s more of a canvas against which the images — now unyoked from being mere picture-book illustrations — are free to really captivate. A pirate ship sailing calmly across the screen framed by the inky black water reflecting a starry night sky, or borne across the white sands by an army of crabs, to Captain Jack introduced via his nose in extreme close-up, amongst many others. There’s also a really memorable opening, where a mass public hanging leads to an outbreak of song and seems to portend a move into Les Misérables territory.
Certainly, there’s still some troubling racial othering, and while Calypso to some extent moves beyond being a one-note voodoo stereotype, no such journey can be ascribed to Chow Yun-fat and his Singaporean posse. With his long wispy beard, his character has not unreasonably been compared to Fu Manchu, while his gang do everything but light up on opium pipes (or maybe they do, it’s all rather a blur of ersatz chinoiserie).
However, on the whole, this is an impressive sequel with more than a little wonder and mystery intermixed with the hokum of the plot. It is at once better acted with more room for the characters to breathe, and is thereby more enjoyable, with the action setpieces more fitted to be compared to a theme park ride. Such a carnivalesque origin may ultimately be the height to which the series can aspire, but when it achieves it (as I would argue it does here), there’s a palpable sense of fun to be had.
Director Gore Verbinski; Writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio; Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski; Starring Johnny Depp, Keira Knightley, Orlando Bloom, Geoffrey Rush, Bill Nighy; Length 168 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 26 April 2013.