Director: Joe Wright
Cast: Gary Oldman, Lily James, Ben Mendelsohn, Kristin Scott Thomas, Stephen Dillane, Samuel West, Ronald Pickup
MPAA Rating: (for some thematic material)
Running Time: 2:05
Release Date: 11/22/17 (limited); 12/8/17 (wide)
Review by Mark Dujsik | December 7, 2017
There has to be a term for the sort of dialogue that often permeates biographical and/or historical movies, in which characters, without any apparent motivation, will drop various pieces of background information about a character's past. We'll call it "trivia-speak" for now, because it does come across as screenwriters dropping trivia in order to show an audience that they've done their homework. Darkest Hour is filled with these random tidbits of information about Winston Churchill and his contemporaries, from a strangely passive-aggressive toast, which gives us the background on his wife's romantic life, to a conversation about Churchill's parents with King George VI that exists for no reason except to give us some information about his parents.
A good dramatized biography knows either how to show the subject's character through actions or how to incorporate these morsels of trivia into an appropriate context. This one obviously has a difficult time finding the appropriate context for its trivia, and there isn't much action to Anthony McCarten's screenplay here.
That's to be expected given the subject and the story's timeframe. This is, after all, Winston Churchill, a famously stubborn politician who drank alcohol throughout the day—despite the warnings and gossiping surrounding this habit—and always seemed to have a cigar in his mouth or at the ready. He was a man set in his ways. Like most examinations of the man since his first term as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, the movie argues that it was his stubbornness that would eventually make him the essential wartime leader that he became.
The movie's story covers about the first month of the premiership of Winston (Gary Oldman, under layers of startlingly convincing makeup and himself convincing), as the movie itself prefers to call him—from May 10, 1940 until the second of a series of three rousing speeches that he give to the House of Commons on June 4 (It's the one about fighting on the beaches, the landing grounds, etc.). It's a period of turmoil for Europe, with Nazi Germany quickly gaining ground and securing surrenders across the continent, and of political in-fighting within Britain, with about half of Parliament remaining uncertain if Winston is the right man for the job at a time when the nation's fate is so precarious.
Loyalists to his Conservative Party rival, the former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), are certain that there's a path to peace with Germany. Winston is convinced, as he has been for about a decade, that there's no possibility of negotiating terms with the tyrannical butcher in Germany that would result in maintaining the sovereignty of the United Kingdom.
The debates and discussions unfold on the floor in Parliament, with the King (played by Ben Mendelsohn) in Buckingham Palace, with Winston's close confidants at 10 Downing Street, and within the vast, underground Cabinet War Rooms. As shot by director Joe Wright and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, there's a dingy, nearly oppressive air to most of these places, in which light seems to struggle to break through the darkness (A single, dusty expanse of sun comes through the ceiling of the House of Commons, and the underground rooms are claustrophobic in their dimness). This seems to suit Winston, as well as the general atmosphere of the era, who sits alone in the darkness of an abandoned room in one scene. There's little here about the politician's struggle with depression, although this moment hints at it.
There is a lot, though, about his infamous temperament. At first, the railing and insults are leveled against his new personal secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), who gradually becomes someone of another confidant for the Prime Minister, who becomes so overwhelmed by the weight of an impending German invasion that he begins to lose his train of thought in mid-sentence. Elizabeth stands in the audience at one point, as Winston shows her a map of the two remaining British strongholds on the coast of France. It's yet another scene in which the historical context of the time is crammed in with minimal motivation.
McCarten's screenplay is most effective when it simply recounts or imagines the behind-the-scenes political machinations and maneuvers that Winston undertakes against the staunch opposition of members of his own party, while they conspire to find an excuse to remove him from office. The primary opposition comes from Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), who continues Chamberlain's philosophy of seeking peace even while serving in Winston's Cabinet. History, of course, has proven Churchill correct in his assessment of Hitler's plans and ruthlessness, but McCarten admirably writes these debates without the foresight of history. The question of negotiations is a genuine one here—more than simply a way of asserting Winston's inflexibility as an inherent good.
It's less effective in crafting a portrait of this man outside of the political and military realm. It tries, with those crumbs of trivia and through Winston's relationship with his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas, as overlooked by the movie as her character), but such moments feel like a distraction from the core of this particular story. The movie gradually builds to a rousing climax of patriotism and determination, but even then, it highlights how Darkest Hour seems primarily to have generalities and broad sentiments on its mind, with only a little thought to the complexities of its central figure.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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