Review: Darkest Hour (2017)

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Darkest Hour, a narrow-window biopic about Winston Churchill set over the period of one month during the early days of World War II, contains a few splendid scenes, many conventional aspects, and one egregious miscalculation.

By "narrow-window biopic" I mean those biographical films that take a key episode or narrow window of time in order to investigate an historical figure. Darkest Hour focuses on May 1940, when Churchill, the newly-minted prime minister, makes his first speeches to Parliament and must decide whether the United Kingdom will stand alone against Hitler's Germany, or surrender in order to salvage what it can. From our point of view, the choice seems obvious, but viewers must remember that Churchill was at this point thought by many to be a failed statesman. He was the lone voice in the wilderness virulently denouncing Hitler, while the majority of his party was for appeasement before the war and for negotiated surrender in spring 1940, when France was falling, British forces were trapped on the Continent, and it looked very much like the whole of Europe would be lost to Germany. The United States were not yet in the war, and Britain would have to stand on its own against Germany's overwhelming military might and aggressive momentum. Of course, the events of May 1940 also lead up to the miraculous evacuation of Dunkirk (events which got their own acclaimed film last summer).

Variety’s Owen Gleiberman notes Capote (2005) as perhaps the first film in this subgenre of biopics focusing on a key chapter in a figure’s life. Gleiberman also points to Spielberg's Lincoln (2012), which I'd hold up as the most significant example of the subgenre and as a major influence on Joe Wright's Darkest Hour. Darkest Hour shares that film's interest in the maneuverings and negotiations of actual politics: how behind-the-scenes conversations and backroom deals shape famous public speeches and the policies of nations. Also like Lincoln, Darkest Hour maintains a strong level of interest and tension for the audience, in spite of its talkiness—I tend to follow politics like some people do sports, so I can't get enough of this stuff—but the film also features some of the dirty power politics that afford House of Cards and Game of Thrones some of their appeal.

So, the narrow-focus framework is very good and so is Gary Oldman, who delivers Churchill's famous speeches with more than enough gusto. One memorable scene—in which Churchill screams at his War Cabinet that "You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!"—shows Oldman chewing the scenery like one of Churchill's cigars. Overall, Oldman delivers a solid performance, but it's certainly not the best of his career, particularly since so much of Oldman is hidden behind latex makeup. Sadly, this is the sort of acting/makeup stunt that tends to win over the Academy, as Oldman won Best Actor and the crew won Best Makeup & Hairstyling. (Look, since acting necessarily involves someone pretending to be someone else, I have no problem with an approach to casting that relies heavily on makeup and prosthetics, rather than choosing an actor based on physical appearance. But I do think too many audiences need the visual distinction to cue them onto good acting.)

English filmmaker Joe Wright—known for Pride & Prejudice (2005), Atonement (2007), and Anna Karenina (2012)—directs, and he adds some of his usual visual flourishes to the picture. For instance, he uses a preponderance of overhead, aerial, "God’s eye" shots, some of them from astonishing heights. The opening scene is quite captivating: looking down from above the House of Commons in Westminster, the camera slowly moves in as the parties shout and yell at each other across the aisle. Then freeze for the title. It's a good hook and adds some initial momentum to the political proceedings. Wright also uses overhead shots to remind his audience of the war raging across Europe. We see bombers create a wreck of explosions at night and holes in the earth by day. In one particularly striking moment, Churchill flies over France and looks down out of the window, and Wright cuts to a reverse shot, showing an iris of the tiny plane in the sky: a young boy looks up at the airplane through the circle of his hand. Wright is visualizing the tension between the big God's eye view of history we often take (and as I did when setting things up above) and the realization that history also involves a series of close-ups of individual people living their lives, not thinking of themselves as extras in the movie of history that features protagonists such as Churchill.

Now, I've given Darkest Hour more than enough praise in discussing its accomplishments at length. Of course, the film's narrative arc is conventional. We get a dark two-hour running time before the rousing, hopeful finish, when Churchill wins Parliament over. The filmmakers throw in a plucky young secretary (Lily James). Whether or not she is a real historical person (I don't know), she's clearly a device to guide the viewer into the events. She is new, and so through her we are introduced to the eccentric Churchill. It's conventional, but fine. There's much like that in the film.

However, there's also the egregious miscalculation late in the film. In order to make his decision about whether to continue to fight and stand against Hitler (and before the famous "We shall fight on the beaches" speech), Churchill descends into the London Underground in order to get a sense of what "the people" think he should do. His subway train helpfully stops for a period, and Churchill asks the motley collection of Londoners (who happen to be a nice, diverse slice of citizens, with efforts seemingly made for class, gender, and racial representation, mind you). Churchill has a friendly engagement with the crowd, and they all agree that they must fight on. He now knows how he must proceed.

Owen Gleiberman, who I already mentioned, thinks that this scene works great, even if we know it's fake. In my opinion, it's not even a spectacular fail. It's not only a ludicrous reimagining, it's plainly false and contrived, and thus ineffective. It's seldom that one scene so offends me that it drops an entire film in my estimation (without it, this would probably be a 7/10), but the supposed climax is so incredibly inauthentic I have to get it off my chest. Of course, films are made to speak to their moments of creation, but the scene boasts the most horrible kind of presentist solipsism, in which a great man of the past has to make his great decision in a way that accords with 21st-century pieties. I'm sure Churchill himself would have had more than a few words to say about such a contrivance.

6 out of 10

Darkest Hour (2017, UK/USA)

Directed by Joe Wright; written by Anthony McCarten; starring Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ronald Pickup, and Ben Mendelsohn.