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Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl (2003)
Director: Gore Verbinski

review by Paul Higson

Ten minutes in and there seemed to be cause for concern. A bit too neat, a tad too slow, the dialogue dipping into the heart-of-the-piratical-17th-century-and-don't-you-dare-ya-arr-stray lexicon. Worse still are the actors. Keira Knightly can light up the screen but not with this dialogue, Jack Davenport is required to bludgeon us to sleep with his tenor bass delivery, Jonathan Pryce looks glumly forward beyond the film into less quirky old age supporting roles, and Orlando Bloom is clearly unable to carry a film. How could he, his head is too small - little old man small. If I were the casting director I would recommend him only for baby roles, or Harold Steptoe in the Hollywood remake (I lie, I'd let Mackenzie Crook and Philip Davies slug it out for that). And the running time is long. We're in for a long keel haul.
   Then... enter Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow. And the movie opens up, exotically blossoming around him, almost as if Gore Verbinski had deliberately played down the opening, seeking to drive home the difference, the relative dullness of even a piratical planet in the absence of Depp's Sparrow and its riotous revival in his presence, vicinity, radius. Depp is a capable character player from a generation of pin-up bad actors (wrong-beat Cage, flat-note Reeves, one-role Slater, ham-it Pitt... though the latter did eventually improve) following the lead of Jack Nicholson empowering themselves enough to demand out of prescribed genre slots and free to roam to whatever genre and role that suited them. Even Depp had an undone period, mostly to the annoyance of horror fans when he was appearing predominantly in films of their genre at the turn of the millennium, fudged performances leaving the reviewers shaking their heads at him as much as they were at the films. In Pirates Of The Caribbean the performance is off-centre again but forgivable because even if we are unsettled and uncertain as to exactly what Depp has in mind or is actually doing, he certainly has the character clearly defined to his own purpose and he does not waver from it, maintaining this precise and odd character throughout. It is a deliciously camp turn, constantly shifting, almost mincingly, superb in his comic timing and with mannerisms that invoke everyone from Adam Ant to an attitudinal Hollywood hooker past her prime. It is a performance that only Depp could get away with. The scriptwriters setup sketches but reserve the best lines for Depp. Not only one-liners, but one-word one-liners, spare sentences that to Depp's enormous credit say everything through his delivery. When one character declares him untrustworthy, despicable and villainous, the likeable sod retorts in mocking disbelief, "Pirate!"
   The plot is of far less importance than the dressing, the action and the laughter. Depp is Jack Sparrow, crewless but not clueless, craft-less but crafty and in the sea-port town of Governor Swann (Pryce) to steal himself a new vessel, if the feckless local guard don't simply hand it to him. Keira Knightly is Elizabeth Swann, the governor's daughter, loved by Captain Norrington (Davenport) but in love with blacksmith Will Turner (Bloom), from whom, as a castaway child, she removed a gold coin medallion so hiding his pirate's bloodline from others. When the medallion touches the ocean it calls forward the Black Pearl, a haunted ship with a murderous living-dead pirate crew who take Elizabeth with them, propelling the rest of the cast to her pursuit and into an impressive adventure.
   The trailers do it no favours. It is an epic film at an epic length, consistently funny and clever with enough images and quips to represent it in an entire series of trailers and spots. The set pieces and stunts display great ingenuity, exactly as is to be expected coming from the director of Mousehunt. Depp and Bloom's initial swordfight in the blacksmith shop is a supremely thrilling and greatly amusing sequence and sets the tone for the remainder of the film. In the moonlight the dead pirates are seen as decaying carcasses, skeletal horrors, great for giving the youngsters a few sleepless nights (they are protected for the time being by the 12A rating). Earlier censor boards would not have been so favourable. (Going back to the Ray Harryhausen films, though the classifiers were fine about the day-lit multiple of skeletons in Jason And The Argonauts but got jittery about the lone sword-fighting bag of bones in The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad, the difference being the darkness of a dungeon). The moonlight dead sequences are orchestrated to perfection, composition, effects and editing remarkable, as they shift from flesh to flesh-stripped, the moonbeams even reaching them as they walk under water. Remember the underwater dead sequences of Edward L. Cahn's The Zombies Of Mora Tau? Nothing like it! "Contains moderate horror!" Moderate? I wouldn't say so.
   There is a fine supporting cast of grotesques, including Kevin McNally on the side of Sparrow and Mackenzie Crook of The Office having a fist of fun under the captaincy of Barbossa, the pirate leader of the ghost pirates. Barbossa is a great turn by Geoffrey Rush. If it was any other young gun appearing opposite Rush then one might suspect that the younger man was acting out of a challenge to the older man's clear abilities, but not Depp. Rush is one of the few actors who never gets his interpretation wrong and has proven capable of camp turns when required. He underplays his villain to the danger point of ushering him into the background and shadows, but it is a subtle and accurate villainy he delivers, his face barely moving, his voice commanding, hard and different. Only Ian McKellan and Philip Seymour Hoffman are his equals. He is satisfied taking the relative backseat and acting as the cantilever weight to Depp's bizarre caricature.
   The only real sadness is that this film succeeds in being grimly fiendish at the same time that it is laugh-making. It as good as removes any possibility of William Hope Hodgson's The Ghost Pirates ever being adapted as a full-score horror film (the claustrophobia, paranoia and unseen could still make it work but the expense would prevent it being green-lit in the wake of Pirates Of The Caribbean) and there are bound to be further horror theme casualties as the monster turns are dressed up in similar spectacle and extravagance. With the gothic gangbusters of The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen upon us soon, we may have to become resigned to that conditioning. Still, this is a ride that will surely continue to make you smile and even laugh long after first viewing it. Begrudgingly, one has to admit that Hollywood are increasingly getting it right, matching the money with the resultant quality.
Pirates of the Caribbean

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