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

  1. Multiple witty vulgarisms.
    Plus Cicero, Shakespeare.
    And why don't I give a shit.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Unquestionably the worst review I’ve read re: “Darkest Hour!”
    Hitler definitely despised Churchill from the moment Churchill identified Hitler as the next horror show in the early 30’s and he definitely was afraid that if Churchill ever did become the PM that England would not fold as all the other countries of Europe did,

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

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.

Dude. You’re my hero and shit.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was going to say I’d really like to see what Vince Gilligan has up his sleeve besidesBreaking Bad spinoffs. But then I saw that he had a short-lived series on CBS a few years back (Battle Creek). I guess things Breaking Bad-related ensure an easy greenlight, particularly from Netflix, for whom the original show was bread and butter in its take up as a streaming platform. There’s something slightly dispiriting about El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, though. Not that Gilligan felt the need to return to Jesse Pinkman – although the legitimacy of that motive is debatable – but the desire to re-enter and re-inhabit the period of the show itself, as if he’s unable to move on from a near-universally feted achievement and has to continually exhume it and pick it apart.

The past is a statement. The future is a question.

Justified Season Six
(SPOILERS) There have been more than enough damp squib or so-so show finales of late to have greeted the demise of Justified with some trepidation. Thankfully it avoids almost every pitfall it might have succumbed to and gives us a satisfying send-off that feels fitting for its characters. This is a series that, even at its weakest (the previous season) is leagues ahead of most fare in an increasingly saturated sphere, so it’s a relief – even if there was never much doubt on past form – that it doesn’t drop the ball.

And of those character fates? In a show that often pulls back from giving Raylan Givens the great hero moments (despite his maintaining a veneer of ultra-cool, and getting “supporting hero” moments as he does in the finale, 6.13 The Promise), it feels appropriate that his entire (stated) motivation for the season should be undermined. He doesn’t get to take down Boyd Crowder, except in an incarcerating sense, but as always he is sanguine about it. After…

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…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

It’s not every day you see a guy get his ass kicked on two continents – by himself.

Gemini Man (2019)
(SPOILERS) Ang Lee seems hellbent on sloughing down a technological cul-de-sac to the point of creative obscurity, in much the same way Robert Zemeckis enmired himself in the mirage of motion capture for a decade. Lee previously experimented with higher frame rates on Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, to the general aversion of those who saw it in its intended form – 48, 60 or 120 fps have generally gone down like a bag of cold sick, just ask Peter Jackson – and the complete indifference of most of the remaining audience, for whom the material held little lustre. Now he pretty much repeats that trick with Gemini Man. At best, it’s merely an “okay” film – not quite the bomb its Rotten Tomatoes score suggests – which, (as I saw it) stripped of its distracting frame rate and 3D, reveals itself as just about serviceable but afflicted by several insurmountable drawbacks.

You’re only seeing what’s in front of you. You’re not seeing what’s above you.

Mr. Robot Season 2
(SPOILERS) I suspect my problem with Mr. Robot may be that I want it to be something it isn’t, which would entail it being a much better show than it is. And that’s its own fault, really, or rather creator and writer-director of umpteen episodes Sam Esmail’s, who has intentionally and provocatively lured his audience into thinking this really is an up-to-the-minute, pertinent, relevant, zeitgeisty show, one that not only has a huge amount to say about the illusory nature of our socio-economic system, and consequently the bedrock of our collective paradigm, but also the thorny subject of reality itself, both of which have been variably enticing dramatic fodder since the Wachowski siblings and David Fincher released a one-two punch at the end of the previous millennium.

In that sense, Mr. Robot’s thematic conceit is very much of a piece with its narrative form; it’s a conjuring act, a series of sleights of hand designed to dazzle the viewer into going with the flow, rath…

What you do is very baller. You're very anarchist.

Lady Bird (2017)
(SPOILERS) You can see the Noah Baumbach influence on Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, with whom she collaborated on Frances Ha; an intimate, lo-fi, post-Woody Allen (as in, post-feted, respected Woody Allen) dramedy canvas that has traditionally been the New Yorker’s milieu. But as an adopted, spiritual New Yorker, I suspect Gerwig honourably qualifies, even as Lady Bird is a love letter/ nostalgia trip to her home city of Sacramento.

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.

You’ll just have to face it, Steed. You’re completely compromised.

The Avengers Season 6 Ranked – Worst to Best
The final run, and an oft-maligned one. It’s doubtful anyone could have filled Emma Peel’s kinky boots, but it didn’t help Linda Thorson that Tara King was frequently earmarked to moon over Steed while very evidentlynot being the equal Emma and Cathy were; the generation gap was never less than unflatteringly evident. Nevertheless, despite this imbalance, and the early hiccups of the John Bryce-produced episodes, Season Six arguably offers a superior selection of episodes to its predecessor, in which everyone became perhaps a little too relaxed.