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

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…

Right! Let’s restore some bloody logic!

It Couldn't Happen Here (1987)
(SPOILERS) "I think our film is arguably better than Spiceworld" said Neil Tennant of his and Chris Lowe's much-maligned It Couldn't Happen Here, a quasi-musical, quasi-surrealist journey through the English landscape via the Pet shop Boys' "own" history as envisaged by co-writer-director Jack Bond. Of course, Spiceworld could boast the presence of the illustrious Richard E Grant, while It Couldn't Happen Here had to settle for Gareth Hunt. Is its reputation deserved? It's arguably not very successful at being a coherent film (even thematically), but I have to admit that I rather like it, ramshackle and studiously aloof though it is.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

You kind of look like a slutty Ebola virus.

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
(SPOILERS) The phenomenal success of Crazy Rich Asians – in the US at any rate, thus far – might lead one to think it's some kind of startling original, but the truth is, whatever its core demographic appeal, this adaptation of Kevin Kwan's novel taps into universally accepted romantic comedy DNA and readily recognisable tropes of family and class, regardless of cultural background. It emerges a smoothly professional product, ticking the expected boxes in those areas – the heroine's highs, lows, rejections, proposals, accompanied by whacky scene-stealing best friend – even if the writing is sometimes a little on the clunky side.

They make themselves now.

Screamers (1995)
(SPOILERS) Adapting Philip K Dick isn’t as easy as it may seem, but that doesn't stop eager screenwriters from attempting to hit that elusive jackpot. The recent Electric Dreams managed to exorcise most of the existential gymnastics and doubts that shine through in the best versions of his work, leaving material that felt sadly facile. Dan O'Bannon had adapted Second Variety more than a decade before it appeared as Screamers, a period during which he and Ronald Shusett also turned We Can Remember It For You Wholesale into Total Recall. So the problem with Screamers isn't really the (rewritten) screenplay, which is more faithful than most to its source material (setting aside). The problem with Screamers is largely that it's cheap as chips.

Well, we took a vote. Predator’s cooler, right?

The Predator (2018)
(SPOILERS) Is The Predator everything you’d want from a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator (or Yautja, or Hish-Qu-Ten, apparently)? Emphatically not. We've already had a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator – or the other way around, at least – and that was on another level. The problem – aside from the enforced reshoots, and the not-altogether-there casting, and the possibility that full-on action extravaganzas, while delivered competently, may not be his best foot forward – is that I don't think Black's really a science-fiction guy, game as he clearly was to take on the permanently beleaguered franchise. He makes The Predator very funny, quite goofy, very gory, often entertaining, but ultimately lacking a coherent sense of what it is, something you couldn't say of his three prior directorial efforts.

My pectorals may leave much to be desired, Mrs Peel, but I’m the most powerful man you’ve ever run into.

The Avengers 2.23: The Positive-Negative Man
If there was a lesson to be learned from Season Five, it was not to include "man" in your title, unless it involves his treasure. The See-Through Man may be the season's stinker, but The Positive-Negative Man isn't far behind, a bog-standard "guy with a magical science device uses it to kill" plot. A bit like The Cybernauts, but with Michael Latimer painted green and a conspicuous absence of a cool hat.

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

The possibilities are gigantic. In a very small way, of course.

The Avengers 5.24: Mission… Highly Improbable
With a title riffing on a then-riding-high US spy show, just as the previous season's The Girl from Auntie riffed on a then-riding-high US spy show, it's to their credit that neither have even the remotest connection to their "inspirations" besides the cheap gags (in this case, the episode was based on a teleplay submitted back in 1964). Mission… Highly Improbable follows in the increasing tradition (certainly with the advent of Season Five and colour) of SF plotlines, but is also, in its particular problem with shrinkage, informed by other recent adventurers into that area.

What a truly revolting sight.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge (aka Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) (2017)
(SPOILERS) The biggest mistake the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels have made is embracing continuity. It ought to have been just Jack Sparrow with an entirely new cast of characters each time (well, maybe keep Kevin McNally). Even On Stranger Tides had Geoffrey Rush obligatorily returning as Barbossa. Although, that picture’s biggest problem was its director; Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge has a pair of solid helmers in Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, which is a relief at least. But alas, the continuity is back with a vengeance. And then some. Why, there’s even an origin-of-Jack Sparrow vignette, to supply us with prerequisite, unwanted and distracting uncanny valley (or uncanny Johnny) de-aging. The movie as a whole is an agreeable time passer, by no means the dodo its critical keelhauling would suggest, albeit it isn’t even pretending to try hard to come up with …