Skip to main content

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour
(2017)

(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.


Wright’s greatest successes have resulted from his excursions into British history or literature, his gift to them being a rare visual acumen and disinclination towards starchy reverence. This can be his undoing – the stage trappings he inflicted on Anna Karenina – but with a story as talky and potentially hidebound as Darkest Hour, it’s a godsend. The first act and a half of the film crackle with energy, and the screenplay from Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything and, er, Worzel Gummidge Down Under) excels at positioning Churchill as the reluctantly requested underdog, disliked by his party and regent and only ushered into office because he’s the sole Tory the Labour party, offering a coalition under the understanding of the threat of a greater foe, will accept.


So we get to know a difficult man through those he impacts most upon, each skilfully sketched such that you know just where they do or don’t stand in relation to our protagonist, how they will help or hinder his mountain to climb. Even Lily James’ predictable audience-identification figure, secretary Elizabeth Layton, offers a degree of variation – a scene in which Churchill shows her the Map Room and she is overcome at the sight of pins representing the brave boys in France looks on the face of it like unearned emoting, until a later exchange reveals that she has lost a brother there – and her reactions form agreeable comic interludes, be it Churchill announcing he is leaving the bathroom “in a state of nature” or her instructing him on the meaning of his Victory sign as initially presented – although she inevitably slips into the status of bystander once all eyes are on her boss.


Kristin Scott Thomas, who it’s still impossible to see and countenance that Hugh Grant went with Andie McDowall in Four Weddings and a Funeral, colours in a hugely affectionate image of Mr and Mrs Churchill’s domestic life, one of heavy drinking and near bankruptcy.


And then there’s Churchill’s opposition, in the form of Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), initially hot favourite to replace Neville Chamberlain (a marvellous Ronald Pickup, who took the role when John Hurt was forced to drop out), both dead set on a suing for peace and supported in said goal by King George VI (in contrast to everything else I’ve ever seen him in, I didn’t even realise it was Ben Mendelsohn until afterwards).


This is, of course, propaganda filmmaking at its most pronounced, the purpose being to underpin the war PM’s iconic status. To that end, Darkest Hour only underscores Chamberlain the appeaser – some have reappraised his tactics as effectively fighting for time while Britain’s military strength was rebuilt, while perhaps the most notable legacy of the Munich Agreement is the subsequent appropriation of the spectre of appeasement to justify various unjustifiable interventions and campaigns “lest there are similar tyrannical consequences” – feeding into the unfortunate broad strokes of the last third of the picture. It also makes it crucially clear that Chamberlain failed in an area his successor excelled: at rhetoric (it’s pretty much the last thing Halifax, who is portrayed as biding his time to make the right usurping move, begrudgingly admits after the famous “We shall fight on the beaches” address).


The picture addresses Churchill’s flaws as foibles that maketh the man, be they his drinking (“Practice” he responds, when the King asks how he manages to partake during the day), or being out of depth in face of new military tactics and advances (and noting but not dwelling on his previous military campaign failures), in particular during a meeting with the French Prime Minister, but willing to make the hard decisions when others wilt (the Siege of Calais). He’s a constant wit, even on the job (“Tell the lord privy seal I am sealed in my privy, and can only take one shit at a time”), but burdened by the inexorable pressure of the job (blackness surrounds the isolated premier deep beneath Whitehall, pushing in from either side; the claustrophobia is palpable as he calls Roosevelt, begging for a bone) and the ticking clock of mounting casualties across the Channel (a visual coup from Wright, occasionally prone to overdoing his CGI-assisted overhead shots, sees a German bombing run, decimating the landscape, dissolve into the prone body of a soldier).


Where the picture goes wrong is in rebuilding the man after his hour of crisis. There’s serious doubt that Churchill vacillated in the manner depicted over the prospect of making peace, thrust upon him by Halifax and Chamberlain, who calculated a point-blank refusal would force him out of office. In narrative terms, however, it’s a necessary manoeuvre, designed to humanise the leader and reveal openness and empathy as an antidote to the image of the remote politician, out of touch with the people and doing his own bloody thing with wanton disregard. So he gets on the Tube and listens to the common people, and has his instincts reinforced as he rediscovers his right stuff. Hurrah.


Except that this conceit, “a fictionalisation of an ‘emotional truth’as Wright puts it, entirely lets the air out of the room, from which the picture never really recovers. It comes on the heels of an oddly positioned – in that it should bolster Churchill’s confidence enough that he doesn’t need an additional boost from going walkabout with the proletariat – visit from George VIII, whose change of allegiance is insufficiently motivated and, more damagingly, brandishes the apparently baseless assertion that Hitler is afraid of the PM. 


The underground scene plays shamelessly as ennobling the character, venerating his expansive, inclusive insight and heroism in a way that’s entirely ill-fitting and unearned; the scene is rote and trite, undermining everything that has come before. Wright admitted “you have to be very careful with all that stuff” and he wasn’t wrong. You can still make your point with a conflicting portrait of someone who does positive things as well as being fundamentally flawed, without resorting to abject misrepresentation. It certainly helps if you want to maintain a modicum of self-respect. The revisionism of this sequence invites the opening of a can of worms Darkest Hour might otherwise have avoided through keeping its ambitions close to its chest.


Churchill is thus re-characterised as liberal and progressive, and in so doing Wright and McCarten insult their audience; this isn’t a piece of fluff like The Greatest Showman, where no one was going to mistake – or shouldn’t have – a musical about PT Barnum as an accurate representation of the real thing. Its particularly galling that Wright goes to such lengths to have the picture’s solitary black character move into frame to take up the PM’s vacated seat, hanging adoringly just out of focus on his every word and receiving admiring approval for completing his quotation.


It’s an elementary level attempt to salve a man who, after all, enjoyed his role in “a lot of jolly little wars against barbarous peoples”, who considered that “the Aryan stock is bound to triumph”, was strongly in favour of using poison gas on uncivilised tribes, considered Indians  a beastly people with a beastly religion” and whose doctor opined, in respect of his views of other races “Winston thinks only of the colour of their skin”. No, you can’t expect a fictional account to pay the staunchest fidelity to facts, but the scene, quite besides being abject in its sentimentalising and manipulation, begs a stern “Well, actually…” for brazenly attempting to palm off a completely antithetical viewpoint.


Darkest Hour’s intention subsequently is to lift Churchill aloft on a wave of affirmative decisions, his rallying speech to his peers preceding his crucial one to parliament regarding the Dunkirk retreat, but Wright uncharacteristically lets both fall flat. Where the earlier scene, in which Chamberlain initiates a frosty reception to the first speech of the new PM, is electric with tension, this one, soaring on uplifting strings and receiving rapturous applause, flounders leadenly.


The picture also stumbles in its attentiveness to the veil of propaganda its lead character draws across the country. Darkest Hour is a propaganda piece about a leader already raised to iconic stature subsequently – not least through speeches re-recorded in the ‘50s that have been commonly mistaken for the real thing – one that implicitly endorses the use of “just” propaganda, and it simply isn’t sharp enough to address those multiple levels. There’s no sense of a serious debate over whether you should lie to the people – Clementine merely has to persuade her doubtful husband it’s necessary, while Chamberlain and Halifax are simply spineless appeasers –  and the admission that oratory will always win the day isn’t enough to claim a successful exploration of the theme. Or, to put it another way, it’s about as successful as the filmmakers questioning their own fabrications in the service of further mythologising this figure.


The figure himself, though. It’s a magnificent performance from Gary Oldman, under shrouds of prosthetics that don’t remotely disguise him, but which never seem less than “authentic”. It’s undoubtedly a gift, as showy roles go, one where he gets to run the gamut of emotions, and thus sits understandably at the Lincoln end of the awards-baiting spectrum (for my money I continue to favour his George Smiley, and if he wins on March 4, Churchill may well be the “career achievement” one they say in hindsight was deserved but not the most deserved). Of course, he needs to avoid having his personal life and statements damagingly headlined between now and then. Casey Affleck snuck through unscathed last year, leading to Oscar sort-of glory, while James Franco is already scuppered this. I expect Oldman’s personal spin machine is currently running overtime.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

You must find the keys for me!

Doctor Who The Keys of Marinus
Most of the criticisms levelled at The Keys of Marinus over the past 50 years have been fair play, and yet it’s a story I return to as one of the more effortlessly watchable of the Hartnell era. Consequently, the one complaint I can’t really countenance is that it’s boring. While many a foray during this fledgling period drags its heels, even ones of undeniable quality in other areas, Marinus’ shifting soils and weekly adventures-in-miniature sustain interest, however inelegant the actual construction of those narratives may be. The quest premise also makes it a winner; it’s a format I have little resistance to, even when manifested, as here, in an often overtly budget-stricken manner.

Doctor Who has dabbled with the search structure elsewhere, most notably across The Key to Time season, and ultimately Marinus’ mission is even more of a MacGuffin than in that sextology, a means to string together what would otherwise be vignettes to little overall coherence…

So you made contact with the French operative?

Atomic Blonde (2017)
(SPOILERS) Well, I can certainly see why Focus Features opted to change the title from The Coldest City (the name of the graphic novel from which this is adapted). The Coldest City evokes a noirish, dour, subdued tone, a movie of slow-burn intrigue in the vein of John Le Carré. Atomic Blonde, to paraphrase its introductory text, is not that movie. As such, there’s something of a mismatch here, of the kind of Cold War tale it has its roots in and the furious, pop-soaked action spectacle director David Leitch is intent on turning it into. In the main, his choices succeed, but the result isn’t quite the clean getaway of his earlier (co-directed) John Wick.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

To defeat the darkness out there, you must defeat the darkness inside yourself.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)
Easily the best of the Narnia films, which is maybe damning it with faint praise. 

Michael Apted does a competent job directing (certainly compared to his Bond film - maybe he talked to his second unit this time), Dante Spinotti's cinematography is stunning and the CGI mostly well-integrated with the action. 

Performance-wise, Will Poulter is a stand-out as a tremendously obnoxious little toff, so charismatic you're almost rooting for him. Simon Pegg replaces Eddie Izzard as the voice of Reepicheep and delivers a touching performance.
***

It always seems a bit abstract, doesn’t it? Other people dying.

Game of Thrones Season Six
(SPOILERS) The most distracting thing about Season Six of Game of Thrones (and I’ve begun writing this at the end of the seventh episode, The Broken Man) is how breakneck its pace is, and how worryingly – only relatively, mind – upbeat it’s become. Suddenly, characters are meeting and joining forces, not necessarily mired in pits of despair but actually moving towards positive, attainable goals, even if those goals are ultimately doomed (depending on the party concerned). It feels, in a sense, that liberated from George R R Martin’s text, producers are going full-throttle, and you half-wonder if they’re using up too much plot and revelation too quickly, and will run out before the next two seasons are up. Then, I’m naturally wary of these things, well remembering how Babylon 5 suffered from packing all its goods into Season Four and was then given an ultimately wasted final season reprieve.

I’ve started this paragraph at the end of the eighth episode, No One (t…