Saturday, 27 January 2018

Review: Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour
Cert: PG / 125 mins / Dir. Joe Wright / Trailer

Oh, Gary. The make-up's good, but your Alfred Hitchcock-voice needs some work, mate. As January continues to raise everyone's expectations for the year ahead and bring us All The Worthy Films, we find ourselves once again back in May 1940. The Second World War rumbles on, nervous glances abound in UK parliament and there's barely a likable person left in the country. Apparently. Yes, it's Darkest Hour, the brooding political thriller from the director of 2007's Atonement starring Gary Oldman as Prime-Minister-of-the-moment Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, Kristen Scott-Thomas as his long suffering wife Clemmie, Lily James as his more-recently-suffering secretary Elizabeth Layton, and a wide range of Him You Saw In That Thing performers as various members of the British government and military.

And I wish I'd enjoyed it more.

Oh, the film's got pedigree, though. Pedigree coming out of its ears. But from the excess of desaturated wooden panelling, wry acerbic gags*1 and furious imperialistic bickering, Darkest Hour begins like a car crash between a Richard Curtis melodrama and a Brexiteer's wank-fantasy. This is the gear it stays in, more or less, throughout. The primary problem is, where do you take the story of a man whose life has been chronicled (obviously and rightly so) extensively since 1945? The apparent answer is to make this depiction slightly less-than-flattering, and it's to director Joe Wright and writer Anthony McCarten's credit that neither shies away Churchill's reputation as an unrelenting a-hole, one who apparently succeeds by shouting down his adversaries rather than using tactics, skill and stoic determination. Unfortunately, most of the film's other characters are also cut from the same cloth. This is effectively two hours of people grumbling then yelling at each other, at least one of whom you know for a damn fact was absolutely right in doing so. But hey, we can't change history.

Not that I'm an expert in the field, by any means. I didn't know the full ins-and-outs of the situation before sitting down in Screen 1, yet I still wasn't surprised by anything I saw there. The film is an easy target for raking in the grey pounds, and one which throws few challenges at an audience (unless you count the aforementioned unlikeability, of course). A few attempts are made at humanising the statesman, but they feel like spurious anecdotes which have morphed over the years into a party-story nobody believes any more*2. Wright's direction is certainly more delicate than Anthony McCarten's writing, although obviously these play off each other. The film lacks the quiet introspection of Wright's work on Atonement, but then the sceenplay's not there to support that, anyway.

The next speedbump we hit is that since the story follows Winston from his appointment to the office of Prime Minister in early May to right before the Dunkirk evacuation in early June, the entire audience can just knows That Speech is being saved for the film's crescendo. So like the sinking of the Titanic, that's all everyone in the room is waiting for. And, as mentioned, this is all accomplished with great gusto and absolute conviction but the film never feels like it's shining a new light on its subject. Whereas Dunkirk at least played with the narrative form and raised tension accordingly, Darkest Hour feels more like a dramatised documentary. All that's missing is intercut shots of David Starkey pacing around Whitehall with an ongoing narration.

There's some great photography, some great performances, and the whole thing generally failed to interest me. I have to accept, of course, that all my niggles with the film are entirely intentional on the part of the film-makers, and this is just Not The Movie For Me. Gary Oldman is, as reported, very good*3.

The best bit comes in one scene where Winston's dictation to his secretary tails off, and around a minute later she bashfully admits "...I didn't understand you sir, you were mumbling".
We need more of this exact character in films starring Tom Hardy and Jeff Bridges, please.

Oh, and is it too much to ask to drop Hayley Atwell and Tommy Lee Jones into the background of a shot? Or even Toby Jones (either version)?*4

So, what sort of thing is it similar to?
This film wants to get off the tube at the same stop as Dunkirk, but ends up walking up the stairs just ahead of Their Finest.

Is it worth paying cinema-prices to see?
If you like stirring tales of That Sort Of Thing, I imagine it is.

Is it worth hunting out on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, though?
Only the hardcore will want to keep this on the shelf for re-watching.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
Put it this way, if (as is being rumoured) Gary Oldman finds himself nominated for the Best Actor Oscar, I think he should only be allowed to pick it up if he does so in-character.

Then we'll see his thespic committment

Will we disagree about this film in a pub?

Is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?

Yeah but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 1: Colonel Kaplan and Director Krennic are in this.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 With the delivery of these laboured witticisms and the requisite knowing-chuckle from the audience, I exhaled a little further each time. [ BACK ]

*2 At one point Winston Churchill decides - on a script-signposted whim - to ride the London Underground for the first time. "How do I get to Westminster?" he inquires, perusing a Tube-map.
"District Line east, one stop", says the young woman next to him. Somehow managing to not add "Are you a tourist? You're in the centre of London mate, that's walking distance. Like, it's less than half a mile. Even a fella in your shape could do that in five minutes. You'll be covering more distance by hoiking down here, getting onto the train then going up at the other end. And that's not taking into account how long the train is going to inexplicably wait on each platform while you apparently discuss government policy with the filthy proles. 'Loose lips', and all that. 'Sir'.", before rolling her eyes and deciding to get the bus instead.

Oh, and during that tube-scene, where (apparently) the actual Prime Minister of an actual country at actual war bolsters his own gut-feeling by getting the hasty. self-righteous opinions of half a dozen strangers with no objective view of the situation, I may well have broken The Code by mumbling "Oh fuck off" even louder than I did during the 'I am Spartacus' bit in The Commuter. Like I said, the film's A Bit Brexit at times, which is faintly ironic given how committed its protagonist was to the European ideal.
[ BACK ]

*3 But then why wouldn't he be? He's Gary Oldman. Why are people so surprised at this? [ BACK ]

*4 In this context, it almost certainly is. THAT DOESN'T MAKE ME WANT IT ANY LESS. [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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