Movie Review: Darkest Hour

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Darkest Hour * 2017 * Rated PG-13 * 2 Hours 5 Minutes

😸😸😸😸🌑 Rated 4/5 happy lap cats

If there’s one thing I’ve learned this Oscars season, it’s that the current generation of filmmakers are certain that the past was sepia-toned and covered with a misty film of dust, which sometimes added a soft glow, and sometimes thickened to dirt or mud. Darkest Hour, directed by Joe Wright and written by Anthony McCarten, is the dustiest and crustiest of the films which follow this trend. It’s very entertaining, but it’s steeped in its own sense of importance.

This biographical film tells the story of Winston Churchill’s (Gary Oldman) first few weeks as Prime Minister of Britain, after Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) has been forced to resign in 1940 because of his preference for appeasement of the Nazis. Churchill is invited by King George VI, known to those closest to him as Bertie (Ben Mendelsohn), to become the next Prime Minister. He accepts, and begins an awkward, strained relationship with the King and virtually everyone else in the British government.

Gary Oldman’s Churchill is intelligent and articulate, but also outrageous and stubborn. He enjoys shocking the people around him by breaking the social rules, such as wandering around his house nearly naked in his pink bathrobe, looking for a book that’s the source of a quote, while followed by the entire household and a few government officials. He’s oppositional because of his beliefs, but also for the sake of being oppositional, or as a distraction used to manipulate people. He’s a brilliant strategist, which is what Britain needed at that point in their history, but he also uses his talent for strategy against his own people.

Nevertheless, he was one of the few who realized the seriousness of the threat that the Germans posed, and that negotiating a peace deal, as his political rivals wanted, wouldn’t save Britain from war and invasion. He insisted that the 300,000 soldiers stranded at Dunkirk, in France, in May, 1940, be rescued. Most of his advisors had given up on rescuing the troops, who comprised the entire British army. He came up with the idea for the flotilla of small civilian vessels which went to Dunkirk and ultimately saved virtually all of the stranded soldiers.

Churchill was able to consolidate his power during these crucial early weeks, through a combination of cooperation with the right people, such as the king, who he became close friends with; earning the support of the British people, who wanted to fight rather than surrender; managing his enemies and friends in Parliament, through a combination of dealmaking and end runs around them; and giving inspirational, memorable speeches which cemented him as the face of the government and the war effort in the people’s minds.

The film depicts Churchill as being supported throughout this period by two women, his wife and his secretary. Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), Churchill’s long-suffering wife, keeps him down to earth when his ego gets the best of him and jollies him out of his darkest moods. Despite the difficulties of Churchill’s controversial public life and how little time it leaves him for his marriage and family, they’ve made their marriage work.

Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) is Churchill’s young, naive secretary who has just been hired at the start of the movie. She serves as one of the point of view characters, and we watch her grow into her position, as she comes to understand this mercurial, complicated man and learns how to keep up with his demands.

Neville Chamberlain and his political co-conspirator, Viscount Halifax, (Stephen Dillane) plot throughout the film to wrest back power from Churchill. A cat and mouse game develops that involves several levels of the British government and fluctuating loyalties, as each side tries to outmaneuver the other in the struggle to decide whether Britain will choose appeasement or war. King George becomes a key player in this struggle, after starting out on one side, but realizing what his true feelings are when the situation becomes dire.

The script is largely well-paced and surprisingly witty. Churchill was a larger-than-life character, and, while the film does stray a bit far into caricature at times, it also clearly worships him as a flawed hero. He’s shown as a well-rounded person, with vulnerabilities, affection for his wife, petty complaints, contrition, and patriotic pride in his country.

Bertie (commenting on Churchill’s functional alcoholism): “How do you manage drinking during the day?”   Churchill: “Practice.”

It’s Gary Oldman’s movie, and he disappears into the role. There were only a few camera angles that even allowed me to tell it was him in there. I’d be fine with him winning the Lead Actor Oscar, though I think there are other deserving actors on the list as well. The people who really deserve the awards are the ones who made his physical transformation possible. I’d absolutely give them the Hair and Makeup award.

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I’d consider giving Darkest Hour the costume award, too, but it would be for Kristin Scott Thomas’ costumes as Clemmie. They were gorgeous, and she was gorgeous in them. She was the best thing about this film for me. She usually is, in any film. Her character was an amazing foil for the Churchill character, giving him someone to be honest and vulnerable with, but also someone to call him on his faults, while using her own emotional yet restrained grace and elegance to show just how lacking in those he was. She’s like the straight man in a comedy duo, doing at least half of the work, but getting very little credit. Churchill wouldn’t be anywhere close to as 3 dimensional as he is without her scenes.

Lily James performs a similar function, bringing us into Churchill’s political world the way Clemmie brings us into his home life, while giving us the contrast between her youthful innocence vs his hardened cynicism. She’s all wide-eyed and easily startled. On her desk, she even keeps a photo of a soldier that turns out to be her lost brother, rather than a sweetheart, which provides a humanizing moment for both Elizabeth and Churchill.

Darkest Hour’s cinematography and production design had interesting concepts, but pushed them too far. I get it, Churchill read old books and quoted old books. Sometimes it feels like Germany is bombing Britain with first editions. That would explain all of the dust in the air, in the ever-present shafts of sunlight breaking through the shadowy gloom. Though I’m not sure where the shafts of sunlight come from, since it’s raining buckets seemingly any time anyone sets foot outside.

The environment is stuffy and claustrophobic, all black shadowed corners, dull colors on dull men, cluttered offices, and rooms where everything seems to already be at least a hundred years old, including the men people. It’s like the shadows of Mordor are trying to consume Britain and succeeding.

Churchill is supposed to be Frodo, the one man who is holding back that evil, but he acts like he is the evil one half the time, as he antagonizes everyone around him for his own manipulative reasons. Even so, he’s the only lively aspect of the entire film. Gary Oldman spends the film chewing scenery, spitting it out, and molding new scenery with it.

Everyone else is left to stand on the sidelines and mutter quietly to each other, except for when one of Churchill’s women or the king get to be his straight man. The film could easily be repurposed into a one man stage show. John Lithgow could star in it on Broadway and the West End. Honestly, I like Lithgow’s Churchill on The Crown much better. I’m not sure why Hollywood continues to be so enamored with the World War 2 era, but I’ll take The Crown S1 over either Darkest Hour or Dunkirk.

 

What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in Darkest Hour?

 

Photo Credit: Focus Features

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