Darkest Hour is the movie that most fits the bill in 2017 for the title of Important Film; it’s tailor made for awards season, in particular for that most coveted prize, Oscar Best Picture nominee. It satisfies many of the requirements that we often think of when we think about an Important Film. Is the movie about a major historical event or a biopic of an important historical figure? Check. Does the movie feature a powerhouse performance by an actor who undergoes a complete physical transformation for the role? Check. Is the movie a crowd-pleaser, ending on a rousing note that sends the viewer out on an emotional high? Check. Darkest Hour is, to its detriment, a box-checker of a movie. It’s so focused on these elements that it never does much else to set itself apart.
This is the story of Winston Churchill’s ascent to power as British Prime Minister during the early days of World War II. The government has lost faith in Neville Chamberlain, the previous PM, who proved ill-equipped to take on the Nazi menace spreading across Europe. Churchill isn’t the preferred candidate of King George VI – he’d rather his friend, Lord Halifax, have the position – but political machinations on the part of Churchill have made him the only consensus choice. The political intrigue, infighting, and deal-making among various members of parliament and the king is actually one of the most interesting aspects to Darkest Hour.
A good example of this comes early in the film, during Churchill’s first speech to parliament as Prime Minister. Supporters of Chamberlain know to watch for a sign from him indicating whether they should cheer in support of Churchill’s speech or stay silent. At the end of the speech, Chamberlain will either wave his handkerchief, signaling approval of the speech, or he will tuck it in his pocket. It’s a clever sequence that sets the stage for how various factions will challenge Churchill’s authority.
As intriguing as moments like that are, Darkest Hour spends most of its time exploring much more conventional avenues of the historical biopic genre. The most egregious of these is how screenwriter Anthony McCarten (mis)uses the character Elizabeth Layton, played by Lily James.
Layton is based on Elizabeth Nel, Churchill’s personal secretary from 1941 to 1945. We meet Layton at the beginning of the film, and she is, in turn, our introduction to Churchill. She’s just been hired, and her first task is to take dictation of Churchill’s correspondence. He gives this dictation to her from his bed, in his bathrobe, as he eats his breakfast. Inevitably she makes mistakes, and his reaction lets us know the only thing shorter than his patience is his temper. His wife, Clementine, eventually sends the young secretary away so she can admonish her husband for his outrageous behavior.
These kinds of exchanges are the only purpose that Layton serves throughout the movie. It feels like in an earlier draft of the screenplay, McCarten intended Layton to be an audience surrogate. She would have been our window into the mind of the great man. Instead, much of what she does is provide moments of comic relief.
In one scene, Layton is sitting on a staircase, furiously scribbling notes for a speech as Churchill dictates to her from behind the closed door of a bathroom. He is taking a bath, and Layton must scramble down the stairs when Churchill announces he is about to walk to his bedroom “in a state of nature.” Aside from another sequence in which a military officer gives Layton a tour of the top-secret, underground military strategy offices – of which, he tells her, women are mostly barred from entering – Layton goes missing for much of the movie.
Whatever the intended purposes of periphery characters like Layton were, this is a biopic of arguably the most popular and most important Prime Minister in British history. Stalwart actor Gary Oldman rises to the occasion with a dynamite performance as Churchill. In what I could cynically call an Oscar-bait move by the filmmakers to put a rail thin actor under pounds of latex makeup to transform him into Churchill, Oldman nonetheless does a fantastic job. He uses a vast amount of skill to project himself, and his interpretation of the wartime PM, through all the makeup to give a stirring performance.
What’s also stirring – if often in a self-conscious way – is director Joe Wright’s grandiose visual aesthetic for Darkest Hour. Wright’s cinematographer, Bruno Delbonnel, uses a beautiful, muted color palette to translate the sense of foreboding that Great Britain felt as Nazi Germany closed in on its shores. Wright is known for sweeping, panoramic camera movements, most famously in a celebrated shot from his 2007 film, Atonement. He employs the same technique in Darkest Hour, although on a smaller scale. Wright orchestrates baroque camera movements during key scenes, like when he has it rotate and swoop from the ceiling of Parliament as Chamberlain’s political foes call for his resignation. These moments call attention to themselves, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t also a delight to watch. Movies are, after all, called motion pictures, and in many ways, they are the art of movement. Wright is unabashed in his enthusiasm to remind us of that.
There is a scene of complete fiction near the end of Darkest Hour. Churchill decides to ride the London Underground to ask regular working people if Britain should press on with the war, or seek a negotiated peace with Hitler. I don’t think it’s spoiling too much to say the answer he gets provides the set up to the movie’s crowd-pleasing, send-‘em-out-on-a-high resolution. That particular moment exemplifies the weakest inclinations of Darkest Hour for conventional biopic filmmaking. Still, Joe Wright and Gary Oldman do provide enough talent to overcome at least some of the films noticeable shortcomings.
Why it got 3 stars:
- Darkest Hour is pretty standard biopic fare. That's not to say they can't be entertaining or moving; Darkest Hour has moments of both. Overall though, there's just not much there there. It's raison d’être seems to be to collect awards.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- At one point in the movie, two of Churchill's detractors are discussing privately his faults and one of them describes him like this: “He’s an actor, in love with the sound of his own voice.” Knowing the level of buffoonery that passes as leadership now, I would gladly take Churchill, his despicable views on colonialism notwithstanding. At least he has a discernible ideology.
- I had no idea going in, but a large chunk of the movie revolves around Churchill's strategy to get the stranded allied troops out of Dunkirk and Calais. So, make a double feature with your friends out of this and Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk. You'll see a more complete view of what the soldiers went through and what went into the plan to save them.
- Another double feature could be Darkest Hour and The King's Speech. Colin Firth plays the stammering George VI, known by his family as Bertie, in King's Speech, and he's portrayed by Ben Mendelsohn in Darkest Hour. Mendelsohn plays down the stutter here; you only hear it for a few brief moments. You could title your double feature "Oscar Bait!"
- The great Kristin Scott Thomas is woefully underused in Darkest Hour as Churchill's wife, Clementine. She serves only to scold or to encourage her husband, nothing more.
- The most emotionally affecting scene for me was the one in which Churchill calls President Franklin Roosevelt in an attempt to secure help from the Americans. It was the 1940s, so the transatlantic telephone connection was weak and faded. It served as a great metaphor for how Churchill felt when FDR reluctantly tells the PM he can't give any aid.
Close encounters with people who don't know how to act in a movie theater:
- Saw this one on a screener at home. Everyone was well behaved, although Rach was listless throughout. Darkest Hour was not her cup of tea.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- Only one Oscar Best Picture nominee to go! I've already seen Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but I didn't have a chance to write about it. I'll get my chance now, as I focus on it next week to round out my Best Picture reviews.