Director: Joe Wright
Writer: Alex von Tunzelmann
Cinematographer: Bruno Delbonnel
Producer: Tim Bevan, Lisa Bruce, Eric Fellner, Anthony McCarten, and Douglas Urbanski
by Jon Cvack
It’s gotten to the point where I always count on at least one British biopic per year that will abide by the same exact formula - a famous figure deals with a seemingly insurmountable task, reaching the very brink of hopelessness and then overcoming it; appearing to originate with 2006’s The Queen, switching out the matriarch with 2010’s sleepy Best Picture winner The King’s Speech, somehow drifting into even duller territory with 2014’s The Theory of Everything (which I’m still in shock for having basically ignored every single one of Stephen Hawking’s world changing discoveries).
For this reason, I had no intention of seeing Darkest Hour, as with it being an absolutely fantastic year for cinema, there was just too much to see in theaters, having also noticed that this film was bouncing out of theaters left and right. Between Call Me By Your Name (2017) and this, I looked up the trailer, figuring if pressed, Call Me By Your Name’s theatrical run would last longer. I then saw that Joe Wright had directed it. I’ve loved most of what he’s done, not yet having seen Pan (2015) or The Soloist (2009), but loving Atonement (2007), and especially his Pride & Prejudice (2005) and Anna Karenina (2012) adaptations. Similar to David Lean, he has an ability to take older material and provide a fresh and fascinating view. Seeing him in the chair for Darkest Hour - as generic as the story seemed to be; exploring Winston Churchill in this case - it’d at least be a very pretty movie to look at.
Gary Oldman’s performance was the first celebrated piece of the film, and it's truly stunning. I was certain I’d at least be somewhat distracted by the fat suit for awhile, in awe of how great it looked, and yet within moments I was taken away. I did not see the suit anymore than Gary Oldman. It was watching the unique portrait of one of the most esteemed leaders of the 20th century, along with many of his foibles. Similar to Downfall (2004), he’s introduced via his new secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) who immediately meets his temper as he attempts to dictate a letter, with Elizabeth unable to keep up. She sticks around and joins Churchill from becoming prime minister and down into the underground bunker where he conducts the war.
The film opens up in the raucous Parliament with a bird’s eye view, as the members demand the resignation of liberal Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in favor of a conservative leader. The camera drops down into close up as they narrow down the choices to Winston Churchill and Edward Woof of Halifax (I thought his name was Halifax, but the actual title is Edward Wood, 1st Earl of Halifax, so I’ll just go with Halifax). The members agree on electing Churchill who then has to go and meet King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn; who was killing me in trying to remember what I’ve seen him in; strange enough, it was Place Beyond the Pines (2012) of all films, where he plays the redneck mechanic). The King and Churchill don’t get along due to some reason I’m not entirely sure of and can’t seem to find by my cursory Wikipedia dive, but seems to involve a comment made about the king, with the King admitting that Churchill wouldn’t have been his first choice.
I wish this movie came out before Dunkirk (2017), as there couldn’t be a better film to help people understand (myself included) what actually happened on the beach. As an American, I always thought it was some epic battle by the likes of our D-Day when it was actually the complete opposite, as with Roosevelt keeping America isolated and out of WWII, Hitler ravaged through Europe in blitzkrieg fashion, with the French soon surrendering and the British looking to be next to fall. Many on the Left, fearing a horrible slaughter if they were to continue, opted for a peace settlement, figuring that they could find a compromise with the Axis. Churchill and the conservatives wanted to keep fighting, and soon the vast majority of the British Army, approximately 300,000 troops, were stranded across the English Channel on the beach of Dunkirk, with the British having limited water or air support to rescue them. German Luftwaffe patrolled the skies and it was a matter of days before the Nazis closed in, demanding they settle in peace or that they’d continue the slaughter. It was truly a hopeless situation, with all signs pointing to surrender. Knowing any of this would have completely changed my experience of Dunkirk (at least the first third where I had no idea what was going on).
In one funny scene, Churchill calls Roosevelt, asking - nearly begging - for the planes that they had purchased from the Americans, to which Roosevelt refers to the Neutrality Agreement he had to honor (not yet being in the war), preventing the states from sending the planes. He then suggests that Churchill bring some horses to the American/Canadian border where he can drag the planes across without breaking the law, for a reason not entirely clear. It’s an absurd idea which would take weeks to achieve when Churchill only had days, though also serves as a great version of Historical relativism, in which we think Roosevelt was this grand hero the whole time during WWII, when in fact, he has rather powerless in assisting countries until the Pearl Harbor attack.
With the exception of Daniel Day Lewis or Philip Seymour Hoffman, I struggle to recall a better example of an actor falling further into an historical figure; as it takes only minutes before his presence fades and it truly feels as though we’re watching the actual Churchill, or at least the portrait created by all I’ve ever learned about the man. I struggle to think of what it is I didn’t like about this film, as counter to most biopics it picks a specific moment, offering a fascinating look into an incredible event, and yet, by containing a structure that’s applied to so many similar, yet far more superficial films, it never feels as fully realized as Wright’s other work. His birds eye views worked on occasion, and other time times felt like expensive VFX when a more intimate portrait of the men on the ground could have benefited.
Allegedly there’s a supercut of the Dunkirk and this film, which the more I think about, the more amazing I think it could be. Given the situation, the reluctance to show the troops in a more intimate fashion made the story feel disconnected; at times as though Churchill was concerned more about proving his enemies wrong and himself right. Given what the battle scenes accomplished in Atonement, I was left wanting to see the same for Darkest Hour, with the story falling far too heavily on the character over the situation. The darkest hour wasn’t Churchill having to head to the war room after his English breakfast, served with fresh orange juice and champagne, capped off with his classic cigar. It was after fighting to defeat, waiting on the beach, unsure if their government would ever come to their rescue.
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