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

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

An initiative test. How simply marvellous!

You Must Be Joking! (1965)
A time before a Michael Winner film was a de facto cinematic blot on the landscape is now scarcely conceivable. His output, post- (or thereabouts) Death Wish (“a pleasant romp”) is so roundly derided that it’s easy to forget that the once-and-only dining columnist and raconteur was once a bright (well…) young thing of the ‘60s, riding the wave of excitement (most likely highly cynically) and innovation in British cinema. His best-known efforts from this period are a series of movies with Oliver Reed – including the one with the elephant – and tend to represent the director in his pleasant romp period, before he attacked genres with all the precision and artistic integrity of a blunt penknife. You Must Be Joking! comes from that era, its director’s ninth feature, straddling the gap between Ealing and the Swinging ‘60s; coarser, cruder comedies would soon become the order of the day, the mild ribaldry of Carry On pitching into bawdy flesh-fests. You Must Be Joki…

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…

I added sixty on, and now you’re a genius.

The Avengers 4.3: The Master Minds
The Master Minds hitches its wagon to the not uncommon Avengers trope of dark deeds done under the veil of night. We previously encountered it in The Town of No Return, but Robert Banks Stewart (best known for Bergerac, but best known genre-wise for his two Tom Baker Doctor Who stories; likewise, he also penned only two teleplays for The Avengers) makes this episode more distinctive, with its mind control and spycraft, while Peter Graham Scott, in his third contribution to the show on the trot, pulls out all the stops, particularly with a highly creative climactic fight sequence that avoids the usual issue of overly-evident stunt doubles.

Kroll couldn’t tell the difference between you and me and half an acre of dandelion and burdock.

Doctor Who The Power of Kroll
All baloney? Certainly, The Power of Kroll was and is oft-cited as one of the worst Doctor Who stories evah, which is probably why there’s now a converse apologia that it isn’t that bad at all, actually, to the extent that a cult of Kroll has grown around it, bathing in its badness, Plan 9 from Outer Space-like. Both the 1998 DWM and 2003 Outpost Gallifrey story polls, way back before there was nu-Who to mess with the purity of the process, had it pegged at 145th out of 160-ish (the exact number depending on which other extraneous inclusions were allowed), which isn’t quite the pits but not far off. Far from being an exemplar of all that’s wrong with the much-maligned Graham Williams era, though, the story stands out because it effectively shuns many of its key ingredients. Albeit, the most notable exception to this proved the biggest stick to beat it with: never more variable production values.

So, you want to go overseas. Kill some Nazis.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
(SPOILERS) I suppose you have to give Kevin Feige credit for turning the least-likely-to-succeed-in-view-of-America’s-standing-with-the-rest-of-the-world superhero into one of Marvel’s biggest success stories, but I tend to regard Steve Rogers and his alter ego as something of a damp squib who got lucky. Lucky in that his first sequel threw him into a conspiracy plotline that effectively played off his unwavering and unpalatable nobility and lucky in that his second had him butting heads with Tony Stark and a supporting selection of superheroes. But coming off the starting block, Captain America: The First Avenger is as below par as pre-transformation Steve himself, and I’m always baffled when it turns up in best of Marvel Cinematic Universe lists. The best I can say for it is that Joe Johnston’s movie offers a mildly engaging opening section and the occasional facility for sharp humour. For the most part, though, it’s as bland and impersonal as…

Farewell, dear shithead, farewell.

Highlander II: The Quickening (1991)
(SPOILERS) I saw Highlander II: The Quickening at the cinema. Yes, I actually paid money to see one of the worst mainstream sequels ever on the big screen. I didn’t bother investigating the Director’s Cut until now, since the movie struck me as entirely unsalvageable. I was sufficiently disenchanted with all things Highlander that I skipped the TV series and slipshod sequels, eventually catching Christopher Lambert’s last appearance as Connor MacLeod in Highlander: End Game by accident rather than design. But Highlander II’s on YouTube, and the quality is decent, so maybe the Director’s Cut improve matters and is worth a reappraisal? Not really. It’s still a fundamentally, mystifyingly botched retcon enabling the further adventures of MacLeod, just not quite as transparently shredded in the editing room.

In a way, that’s good, as there can be no real defence that the fault lies elsewhere. What was Russell Mulcahy thinking? What was anyone thinking? Th…

So the house is falling apart and the vineyard makes undrinkable wine. Excellent.

A Good Year (2006)
(SPOILERS) I oughtn’t really to like A Good Year. And, kind of, I don’t. But I kind of do too. Despite entirely floundering on a number of levels that should entirely incapacitate it on the starting line, it’s probably the most likeable, personable movie Ridley Scott has made in the past two decades. Which doesn’t make it very good, but it’s very evident he actually had something invested in what he was making for a change.

I apologise for Oslo's low murder rate.

The Snowman (2017)
(SPOILERS) Maybe Morton Tyldum made Jo Nesbø adaptations look deceptively easy with Headhunters, although Tyldum hasn’t show such facility with material since, so maybe Nesbø simply suits someone with hackier sensibilities than Tomas Alfredson. It’s a long way down from the classy intrigue of John Le Carré to the serial killer clichés of The Snowman, and I’m inclined to think that, even if Alfredson had managed to film that 15% of the screenplay he says went awry, this wouldn’t have been all that great.