Film review: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

23 May 2011

Written by: Suzannah Macbeth

The fourth film of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, On Stranger Tides, is surprisingly riveting. I approached it with low expectations after the second and third films in the series – both of which became progressively sillier and harder to follow as they went along.

Like all the Pirates films, On Stranger Tides is laden with characters. In this case, most of them are set on finding the Fountain of Youth before anyone else. Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) doesn’t seem to care all that much about the Fountain, but his knowledge – or pretence at knowledge – of its whereabouts means he’s in demand, to the extent that someone else is swanning around London pretending to be him.

The London scenes are among the best, particularly when the real and fake Jack Sparrows meet. The two figures, dressed identically, mirror one another’s movements delightfully as they size one another up at the beginning of the inevitable sword fight.

Pirates, of course, don’t belong in London, and Jack is soon at sea on a ship under command of Blackbeard (Ian McShane). The ship is crewed by normal sailors as well as those who have been ‘zombified’, making mutiny difficult since they are loyal to Blackbeard and apparently can’t die.

The presence of a woman from Jack’s past, Angelica (Penelope Cruz), provides the anticipated token female lead in the absence of Keira Knightley, who played the central character of Elizabeth Swann in the earlier films.

Thankfully, Angelica’s presence adds another face to the very short list of those who are easy on the eye. Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa, who is also looking for the Fountain while in the employ of the British on another ship, is overdone, and so is his makeup. The ugliness of the ‘evil’ characters is excessive – Rush definitely didn’t look that bad in The King’s Speech.

Apart from the romance between a young missionary and a mermaid, the only thread of the story that one really cares about is what happens to Jack and his offsider Gibbs (Kevin McNally). The film has too much random action, and as usual the only fight scenes that really work are the ones that focus on Jack Sparrow.

Overall, it’s Johnny Depp’s character that anchors the film, just as he anchors the entire franchise. Given Depp’s impressive and diverse repertoire, it would be a shame if he is remembered primarily for his role in Pirates of the Caribbean. But, with plans apparently in the wings for a further two films in the franchise, we’ll be seeing plenty more of Captain Sparrow in years to come.

Suzannah Marshall Macbeth is a tall ship sailor from Western Australia, currently studying the Masters of Global Communications at La Trobe University. She is a member of the upstart editorial team.