Back To Your Regularly Scheduled War In “Darkest Hour”
One of the simplest points that can be made about “Darkest Hour” is that it portrays the flip side of this summer’s “Dunkirk.” You could cut the two movies together — the horrifying beaches from one, the brooding before a war-room map from the other — into a piece of Oscar bait that would feel even more traditional than these 2017 WWII lionizations are on their own.
There’s a way of reading the Churchill-focused side of this duo as a worthy addendum to “Dunkirk.” The fact that they’ve come out in the same year isn’t the fault of “Darkest Hour.” But I’m not sure audiences are so spongy, so eager for historical detail that “Darkest Hour” gets a free pass on its closeness to Nolan’s summer blockbuster. The fact is we’ve already been to 1940 and Blitz-besieged Europe once this year (twice actually if you happened to see the BBC’s inoffensive and inessential “Their Finest”). Can a fairly standard biographical snapshot swell our emotions for the second time in six months about the same set of stakes?
While “Darkest Hour” imprisons its politicians in a series of oaken rooms, instead of the briggs and biplanes of “Dunkirk,” the feelings it attempts to elicit are the same ones — bravery, sacrifice, redemption, pure populism — connoted when Harry Styles hears Churchill’s famous May 1940 address aloud from the newspaper at the end of “Dunkirk.” That moment feels like a symphony for the common folk, and as innocent and apolitical a statement on WWII as one can muster while still making a movie about how the Allied troops were heroes. “Darkest Hour” crescendoing into Churchill delivering the same speech to Parliament feels more like a piece of chamber music for a brilliant, sometimes cloistered nationalist who was right for this particular moment.
Where this historical drama from Joe Wright (“Atonement,” “Pride and Prejudice”) really succeeds is more nebulous than the gravity of Gary Oldman’s Oscar-grasping performance lets on. Certainly, he’s transformed into a man 80 pounds heavier and whose famous witticisms are bolstered by fire and cheek. It’s a memorable performance, yes, but the film’s trailer is sufficient to convey what Oldman is doing as a performer. The best line of the movie — Churchill screaming his anti-appeasement credo, “You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!” — has unfortunately already been revealed.
It’s Wright’s filmmaking, dark, rich and full of immaculate framing, that folds the Churchill character into a time and place, and crucially shows the ways in which he often resisted such folding. We’re first introduced to Churchill by only the ember end of his cigar in a shadowy bedroom. Another masterful shot squares off the new Prime Minister, slouched in a lonely elevator, descending into the utter darkness of his Westminster bunker. He’s visually communicated to us as a rebel in the House of Commons and in the foyers of Buckingham Palace, while also being a product of such institutions, like a stately portrait that insists on hanging crookedly.
Oldman’s performance, while heavy and effortful, feels more like, say, Morgan Freeman in “Invictus” than Daniel Day-Lewis in “Lincoln.” It’s a subtle distinction, but the former is a topflight professional delivering a script pre-packaged to land as important. Such scripts, like this one by “Theory of Everything” screenwriter Anthony McCarten, know they must both evangelize for and humanize the subject. That means letting on during a family toast to his new national position that Churchill has neglected his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) routinely through the years. It means showing that at times his whiskey pours stymied his ability to write and speak. It means showing through the eyes of Churchill’s personal typist (Lily James) that he could be cruel and curt. But the best biographical performances, like DDL in “Lincoln” or Natalie Portman in “Jackie,” are more inherently fascinating; the performances themselves thrive on both exceeding and defying the popular imagination. Humanizing isn’t something a script does; it’s something essential in acting, reintroducing unexpected, imperfect flavors to figures who’ve been diluted by history.
While the miracle of pulling off the real-life Dunkirk evacuation is made clear, “Darkest Hour” has a way of making Churchill appear too perfect for this midnight hour of the free world. His readiness to stir the masses over the radio and espouse the barbarism of Hitler don’t exactly suit the parliamentary intrigue that dominates the rest of the script. Large portions hang the tension on whether Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) can catch Churchill on a political technicality and remove him from office. The plot’s nitty gritty is commendable, but it still has to work itself into a violin-fueled frenzy suitable for fighting on the beaches. This leaves the proceedings both boring down the stretch and maudlin in the end, a backward combination for a movie that I think fancies itself thriving on intrigue and sobriety.
Back to “Dunkirk.” Its best storytelling quality is a choice that was hiding in plain sight — demystify the war by showing it nakedly through the eyes of untrained teenagers and day sailors risking everything. Wright dresses the British resistance right back up in its top hat and coattails, and it could scarcely be a more traditional “good-bad” by our standards. In the jowliest movie in recent memory, I walked away feeling Gary Oldman is a shoe-in for Most Troubled Jowls this Oscar season.
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Be Reel is a movie reviewing & reappraising podcast hosted by Chance Solem-Pfeifer and Noah Ballard.
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