Sunday, 14 January 2018
A man steps through a door into a dark hallway. His shoulders slump. His head is bowed. We see him framed through a square window that makes him look like he's trapped. Surrounded on all sides. The weight of the world is on his shoulders. The man is Winston Churchill, the newly appointed war time Prime Minister of the UK and he has to make a decision that will save 400,000 lives. It's a tough aul station.
It's 1940. Germany has invaded it's neighbouring countries and the allied forces are being forced out of Europe. The Labour party has lost all confidence in Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and he's forced to resign. Winston Churchill takes his place. Churchill is not a popular choice due to his manner and some choice past decisions and people are champing at the bit to see how he will resolve the escalating crisis in Dunkirk. The film is the story of the first few weeks of his term of office where his steel resolve cemented his place in history books forever.
Darkest Hour is a film it's easy to be cynical about. It's been released smack bang in the middle of awards season. It seems designed to win awards. If you're any bit knowledgeable about history you'll learn nothing new. It's blunt and it's a bit cheesy. But you know what? I thoroughly enjoyed it and it's mainly to do with the actor playing Churchill. Gary Oldman. He's fantastic in this. Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James and Ben Mendelsohn are great in support but this film belongs to Oldman. His Winston is a warm(ish), witty curmudgeon, as blustery as the man was depicted but still capable of tenderness and self doubt. He's a pisshead, a grump, rude, tactless but he'll still make you smile. Oldman becomes him. It's great when you watch a film and forget there's an actor playing the part. I'll be amazed if he doesn't get at least an Oscar nod for this. It's not a spoiler to say this but his portrayal of one of the most famous war time speeches in history will raises the hairs on the back of your neck. This is career best stuff.
Director Joe Wright has a fine eye too. For a film set mostly in dark smoky rooms it looks fantastic. Shadowy scenes look like they've been lifted from an Orson Welles movie, a darkness enclosed elevator slowly descending, a stunning overhead shot of French civilians travelling along a bombed out road, the utterly senseless violence of war distilled down to one shot of a dead soldier and his bloodied eye. All of these little moments help punctuate the talkiness and keep things fresh.
It's pretty talky but that's to be expected. The man was well known for his oration. If you like your movies fast moving and full of action then this isn't for you. As mentioned earlier if you are coming to this wanting to learn something new about the man you won't find much new here either. And it has an oddly episodic feel due to the dates popping up on screen. It's fierce unsubtle too. A fictional (I'm assuming it is anyway) scene on the underground will make you cringe and groan at how on the nose it is. I mean it's warm and it's heart is in the right place but it just comes across pure silly. There's plenty to complain about but Oldman does such good work that it's all forgiveable. The other actors excel too. Mendelsohn as George VI offers his own take on a troubled monarch that doesn't pale in comparison to the Colin Firth version. Kristin Scott Thomas as Clementine Churchill does well in a small part that helps show WC's human side. She's too good for small roles like this though. And Lily James as Churchill's secretary Elizabeth Nel is fine in another small role that goes some way in showing how things were for women in this era.
It's a fine companion piece to both last year's Dunkirk and 2012's The Kings Speech. Aspects of both films are shown again here and it's always fun to see similar stories from different perspectives. For a wartime set film about a stressed out man making tough decision's it's also surprisingly funny. It's also a timely film. In this age of insane world leaders who see themselves as beyond reproach it's heartening and somewhat comforting to see a leader willing to acknowledge doubts they have about themselves and past errors.
Well worth a watch.