Without victory there can be no survival: Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour (2017)

Gary Oldman delivers another great performance but in a superficial film that doesn’t even try to escape the typical clichés found in so many biographies

Darkest Hour


Di­rect­ed by Joe Wright. Writ­ten by An­tho­ny Mc­Carten. Star­ring Gary Old­man, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Ben Mendel­sohn, Stephen Dil­lane, Ronald Pick­up, Nicholas Jones, Samuel West, David Schofield, Richard Lums­den, Mal­colm Stor­ry, Hilton McRae and Ben­jamin Whitrow.

If there is some­thing one can as­sume when watch­ing Dark­est Hour, it is that those in­volved in the project must have thought that it should be made as dark as pos­si­ble. And I mean, lit­er­al­ly dark. In fact, in this sober fic­tion­al­ized ac­count of Win­ston Churchill’s first three weeks as Prime Min­is­ter of the Unit­ed King­dom, near­ly every room on screen is so dim­ly lit that I can­not be­lieve any­one would be able to see any­thing in front of their noses and not just stum­ble over one an­oth­er all the time.

These kinds of clichéd aes­thet­ics are noth­ing new and can be found in a lot of self-im­por­tant biopics that aim at a cer­tain baroque solem­ni­ty, with rooms filled with smoke so that the beams of sun­light are vis­i­ble com­ing in through the win­dows. Sure, it is an artis­tic choice, but it does look cheesy when peo­ple are sup­posed to be read­ing, writ­ing, typ­ing or even see­ing each oth­er as they dis­cuss the fate of their na­tion. At one point, when Churchill vis­its King George VI in broad day­light, all win­dows of Buck­ing­ham are half cov­ered and the palace looks like a cave, so poor­ly il­lu­mi­nat­ed that it made me won­der if the king suf­fered from some undis­closed case of pho­to­pho­bia.

While this is dis­ap­point­ing enough con­sid­er­ing that the cin­e­matog­ra­ph­er in case is the tal­ent­ed Bruno Del­bon­nel (Amélie; In­side Llewyn Davis), the clichés in Dark­est Hour are not only of a tech­ni­cal na­ture. On one hand, one of the film’s qual­i­ties is how di­rec­tor Joe Wright (Pride & Prej­u­dice; Atone­ment) builds ten­sion from the pres­sure that Churchill un­der­goes know­ing that his de­ci­sions will af­fect the course of his­to­ry. By this point, Adolf Hitler had al­ready in­vad­ed half of Eu­rope and is ready to con­quer the rest. Now, the en­tire na­tion ex­pects Churchill to find a way to end the war af­ter hav­ing lost their faith in the pre­vi­ous Prime Min­is­ter, Neville Cham­ber­lain (Ronald Pick­up).

Be­gin­ning on May 9, 1940, only one day be­fore Cham­ber­lain re­signs and Churchill (Gary Old­man) takes over, Dark­est Hour de­picts how the new PM was no one’s first choice (the Lords want­ed Hal­i­fax, the Lord Pres­i­dent of the Coun­cil, but he de­clined) and fo­cus­es on how he was re­gard­ed with doubt by near­ly every­one for be­ing against peace ne­go­ti­a­tions with Hitler and only talk­ing about rag­ing war, as op­posed to Hal­i­fax (Stephen Dil­lane). With the coun­try vir­tu­al­ly alone at this stage of the war (the U.S. couldn’t care less due to the Neu­tral­i­ty Acts), Churchill is also pressed to come up with a so­lu­tion to evac­u­ate 300,000 British sol­diers trapped in Dunkirk be­tween the Nazis and the ocean.

As the film dives into the wind­ing roads of rhetoric, we are pulled into a uni­verse of words and speech­es. But the plot struc­ture is con­ven­tion­al and su­per­fi­cial, just like in screen­writer An­tho­ny McCarten’s over­rat­ed The The­o­ry of Every­thing (2014). Here, the typ­ist Eliz­a­beth (Lily James) serves the sole func­tion of be­ing our door into a nar­ra­tive that re­lies on as much ex­po­si­tion as pos­si­ble, even in the most im­plau­si­ble mo­ments – like when Churchill takes Eliz­a­beth on a guid­ed tour through the de­tails of his res­cue op­er­a­tion so that every­thing is duly ex­plained to the au­di­ence as well. Like­wise, Kristin Scott Thomas is com­plete­ly wast­ed too, play­ing Churchill’s sup­port­ive wife Clem­mie.

De­scribed at some point as “an ac­tor in love with the sound of his own voice,” Churchill is de­pict­ed as an ec­cen­tric, grumpy old man who may be a prag­mat­ic politi­cian and great or­a­tor but is seen drink­ing whiskey for break­fast, mum­bling to him­self and nev­er minc­ing words when talk­ing to some­one. Gary Old­man em­braces the char­ac­ter with an un­be­liev­able in­ten­si­ty un­der tons of make­up that make him ab­solute­ly un­rec­og­niz­able, which, com­bined with his im­pres­sive­ly ac­cu­rate man­ner­isms and larg­er-than-life per­for­mance, has Os­car writ­ten every­where – es­pe­cial­ly when­ev­er Churchill los­es his tem­per de­fend­ing a “no­ble” de­ci­sion that only few are able to un­der­stand or ac­cept.

On the oth­er hand, Wright can be quite pre­dictable and ob­vi­ous in his ap­proach as well, like when he tries to cre­ate a rhyme be­tween a cou­ple of shots where the cam­era moves from someone’s face all the way up to the clouds. But the worst mis­take that Dark­est Hour makes is with a ter­ri­ble scene that shows Churchill in a very ques­tion­able light, when he de­cides the fate of the en­tire na­tion by talk­ing to a group of peo­ple who are not aware of what is ac­tu­al­ly hap­pen­ing. It is en­rag­ing how he presents them with a “hy­po­thet­i­cal” sce­nario that they can brave­ly refuse be­fore mov­ing on to a bu­reau­crat­ic se­ries of speech­es that should mirac­u­lous­ly make every­one see him now as a hero.

In oth­er words, be­sides be­ing aes­thet­i­cal­ly ir­ri­tat­ing and full of clichés, this is a su­per­fi­cial biopic that doesn’t even un­der­stand the moral im­pli­ca­tions of what it shows. At least Gary Old­man makes it en­ter­tain­ing enough with an­oth­er ex­cel­lent per­for­mance in a ca­reer full of many.

Jan­u­ary 20, 2018


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