A governor’s daughter (Keira Knightley) and an apprentice blacksmith (Orlando Bloom) are drawn into a desperate battle against Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and his crew of cursed, undead pirates. Their only help is the deranged pirate Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), except he does not seem to have decided on which side he is going to fight.
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was an unexpected breakout hit back in 2003. It was the first major pirate movie in Hollywood since Renny Harlin’s abortive Cutthroat Island back in 1995, and defied expectations to become a massive commercial success. Three sequels followed, with a fourth due in cinemas later this year. The character of Jack Sparrow has become Johnny Depp’s most iconic role, defining him almost to the point of type-casting. With the success, the legacy and the ongoing franchise, it is actually quite easy to overlook this first film and fail to realise just what an exceptional piece of Hollywood entertainment it is. This is a genuinely great movie.
Part of the film’s creative success stems from the manner in which it blends two disparate genres. A pirate film alone would have likely suffered the same fate as Cutthroat Island, but by introducing a strong element of supernatural horror it gains an entirely new angle from which to indulge in pirate archetypes. Cursed Aztec gold and undead pirates make for a great combination with swashbuckling adventure and nautical action. It is also a godsend for director Gore Verbinski and his cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, providing all manner of impressive and memorable imagery with which to tell the story. The crisp, naturalistic look of much of the film gives it a great aesthetic, one that reminds me of the superb work done by the late Douglas Slocombe in the original Indiana Jones trilogy.
The film also engages in a very clever treatment of Hollywood pirates. It presents three different archetypes. First there is the villainous Captain Barbossa, played by Geoffrey Rush with a deliberate eye for the Long John Silver-style pirate as typified by Robert Newton in Byron Haskin’s Treasure Island (1950). Secondly there is the heroic young blacksmith Will Turner, played by Orlando Bloom, styled in such a way as to resemble the Errol Flynn movie pirate: much more dashing and handsome and positioned very much as a romantic hero. Finally there is Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow, developed as an analogue for the American rock musician: the heavy eye-liner, the confident swagger, staggering around the film in an apparent haze of drugs and alcohol. He is a product of contemporary Hollywood, and backed by the two common representations of the older pirate genre he manages to generate something new while honouring his past.
Bloom is, at this early stage of his career, a somewhat limited performer – as is his co-star Keira Knightley. Depp took much of the spotlight upon the film’s release due to his attention-grabbing theatrics, and while his performance would broaden towards self-parody in the sequels here it is a nicely balanced combination of superficial pratfalls and a manipulative, dark undercurrent. To my mind the real star performer of the film is Rush: he takes a stereotype and runs with it full-hilt. His is a performance filled with such glee that it simply becomes infectious. He rarely appears in Hollywood blockbusters, but when he does so here he absolutely makes it count. Plus, it must be noted, he is the only pirate in the film to go ‘yarr!’.
If the film has a major drawback, it is a certain level of narrative bloat; it is basically a two-hour story told over the course of almost 150 minutes. Given the inventive fantasy elements, the exceptionally well choreographed swordplay, and Geoffrey Rush, that seems a minor drawback. This is a wonderfully crafted and beautifully staged dark fantasy that represents the absolute high point of Gore Verbinski’s career. It is simply tremendous fun.