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Saturday 12 July 2003

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Reviewed by Claude Lalumière

Directed by Gore Verbinski
Screenplay by Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio; story by Ted Elliot, Terry Rossio, Stuart Beattie, and Jay Wolpert
Starring Johnny Depp, Keira Knightley, Orlando Bloom, and Geoffrey Rush

If Johnny Depp's winningly eccentric portrayal of the roguish Captain Jack Sparrow were the only attraction of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, it would still be a film well worth seeing. Depp's charm is so expansive that it suffuses the whole film. But The Curse of the Black Pearl appeals for many reasons. It's a terrific adventure, lovingly made by a group of filmmakers who clearly had immense fun creating a fantastic pirate story.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is set in the powdered-wig era of the British Empire. As a young girl, Elizabeth, the daughter of Governor Shaw, is obsessed with violently romantic tales of pirates, much to her father's chagrin. On a sea crossing from England to the Caribbean, she spots an unconscious boy floating on some wreckage. The boy is rescued, and the mists part to reveal the fiery remains of a ship. In the distance, a ship flying the Jolly Roger escapes. Cut to a grownup Elizabeth, and the main story starts to unfold.

The Curse of the Black Pearl is the most entertaining adventure film I've seen in many years. Although it makes full use of the special effects technology now available to filmmakers, it does not use effects in lieu of good storytelling, but as a tool to enhance it. The glaring plot holes that have come to characterize big-budget films are refreshingly absent here.

What unfolds is an unpretentious and clever supernatural tale involving an ancient curse, a purloined medallion, a love triangle, undead pirates, a case of mistaken identity, and a pirate's quest to recover his stolen ship.

So many films are full of their own importance; not so here. This isn't a self-proclaimed "big" movie; for all the special effects, spectacular feats of derring-do, and the like, The Curse of the Black Pearl's stakes remain personal: our young would-be lovers, Elizabeth and Will, want to find a way to be together; Will risks his life and social standing to do what he believes is right; Elizabeth defies her father and his society to follow her dreams and her heart's desires; Captain Jack Sparrow wants his ship back; Barbossa and his crew of undead mutineers want to live again; Norrington believes in upholding British rule and also yearns for Elizabeth's love.

The Curse of the Black Pearl is a rousing adventure for all ages, but it is not bloodless and candy-coated. There's death and carnage aplenty, though the film never indulges in gore. The violence is painful, and the danger is always involving.

Because all the characters are driven by personal motivations, many key scenes are truly suspenseful. The action is never reduced to a simplistic case of good vs. evil. As such the outcome of many conflicts is hard to predict, as the tangled web of the characters' complex allegiances and desires complicate matters in a most narratively exciting manner. We come to empathize to some degree with everyone's plight, although some characters engage our sympathy more vigorously than others.

Elizabeth Shaw is the film's protagonist, and certainly her rebellious courage and adventurous romanticism make her an ideal focus character. We cheer for her at every turn. Keira Knightley portrays Elizabeth with gutsy sexiness, graceful strength, and robust charm. But the film's star is without question the superb Johnny Depp, who gives an outstanding performance.

Depp is no stranger to playing outlandish characters. Ever since being cast in the title role of John Waters's outrageously delightful Cry-Baby, Depp has time and again displayed his versatility and his flair for the outré. Depp's infectious charm infuses his often unsavory characters with depth, pain, and complexity, drawing empathy from audiences, even when least likely.

Depp plays the down-and-out pirate Captain Jack Sparrow, an eccentric and brilliant pirate with a legendary reputation. Sparrow stumbles through the film, apparently drunk and/or brain damaged, yet pulling off impressive stunts and complex strategies that confound his adversaries and confuse his allies. It's never made clear how much of Sparrow's behavior is a knowing Columbo-esque shtick to keep people off guard, how much of it is involuntary eccentricity, and how much of it is Sparrow enjoying a good joke at the expense of the world. Depp as Sparrow is extremely funny. Not the tiresome "look at me, I'm a clown" kind of "funny" that is pervasive in Hollywood films these days — the brand of "comedy" popularized by latter-day Saturday Night Live spin-off movies and by Jim Carrey — but a funny borne out of intelligence and wit.

Although there are plenty of laughs mingling with the adventure and terror, the humor is never jarring and it never undermines the plot or the mood. The humor is always genuine, emerging from the personalities of the characters and the situations they find themselves in.

Also, the film never makes fun of itself. It believes in its appeal, in the fun that can be had telling a swashbuckling romantic adventure about undead pirates. The filmmakers never sneer at or condescend to the audience. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is a surprisingly honest film. It loves what it is, and it unabashedly wants to share its pleasures.

The last time an adventure film worked so well was with Steven Spielberg's one great film, Raiders of the Lost Ark (the later Indiana Jones movies descended into artless self-parody, while Spielberg's work in general became increasingly guilty of schmaltzy manipulation). The Curse of the Black Pearl carries more than a whiff of Richard Lester's dashingly entertaining The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1975), but it surpasses them: the wit is more sophisticated, the story's conflicts more engagingly nuanced, its imaginative flair more daring. What The Curse of the Black Pearl brings most to mind is Tim Powers' 1987 novel, On Stranger Tides (by far my favorite Powers novel), itself a tale of undead pirates in the Caribbean set in more or less the same era. Both share the same mix of swashbuckling adventure, supernatural horror, bizarre characters, and sophisticated wit. Fans of one should definitely enjoy the other.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is unadulterated pulpish exuberance, well crafted in every regard. I loved every moment of it.

To discuss this column, and genre fiction in general, visit Claude Lalumière's Critical Speculations on the TTA Press message boards.

Claude Lalumière is a critic, editor, and fiction writer. 2003 will see the release of three anthologies he edited: Island Dreams: Montreal Writers of the Fantastic (Véhicule Press), Open Space: New Canadian Fantastic Fiction (Red Deer Press), and, in collaboration with Marty Halpern, Witpunk (Four Walls Eight Windows). He is the featured "Foreign Author of the Month" for June 2003 at Publishers: please send review material to 4135 Coloniale, Montreal, QC, Canada, H2W 2C2.

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