Darkest Hour (2017)

Directed by Joe Wright

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Darkest Hour tracks the first month after Winston Churchill has been appointed prime minister.  He’s a controversial figure, a politician maligned by both sides, and he has his hands full with imminent invasion of Hitler’s German army.

It’s a pressure cooker of a movie, and it’s a testament to director Joe Wright and the performance of Gary Oldman as Churchill that you feel that pressure.  We know how World War II worked out, we’ve heard about the escape from the beaches of Dunkirk (as seen in 2017’s Dunkirk and even in 2007’s Atonement), and we know that England doesn’t fall to the enemy.  And yet I felt the intensity.

This is a fairly conventional, albeit well-made, biopic, and it works because of that atmosphere.  The plot is relatively sparse considering what’s at stake, but Darkest Hour really immerses the viewer in the mood of all that imminent doom.  I kept finding myself thinking about what would have happened had the Germans invaded England, surely feeling the same thing Churchill himself must’ve been feeling.

The main dilemma for the British, at this time, was whether to negotiate a peace with Hitler’s army, moderated by the Italians.  Many in Churchill’s cabinet argue for the peace talk, but Churchill remains insistent that they need to fight until the end.  He sees Hitler for what he was, a monster, and perhaps it’s just the crutch of hindsight that makes him such a likable character.  Churchill, in this movie, sees Hitler and the events of the time the way we see them.  It’s unthinkable for us to consider making peace with f*ckin’ Hitler, and yet the movie makes a good case for it at the time.  To some degree it’s just all politics.

When Churchill is appointed as prime minister, he states that he wants to fight, and the end of the movie concerns him doubling down on that effort, finally gaining the support of the politicians behind him.  He unites the country, in other words, and it’s the strength of the British spirit that narrowly escapes defeat.  There is a focus on Churchill’s civilian fleet which would travel across the English Channel to help bring home their troops, and this is meant to be a rousing moment, showing the country unified.

Churchill is less of a person in Darkest Hour and more of a God.  He never really changes, he just finally convinces everyone else that he’s right.  He’s stubborn at the beginning, but he’s stubborn because he’s right.  It’s the characters around him, King George (Ben Mendelsohn), his secretary (Lily James) and the former prime minister Neville Chamberlain.  They see through his rough exterior, realize he has the best interests of the country at heart and decide to follow his lead.

Churchill, maybe because he’s such a legendary figure, remains almost larger than life throughout the story.  There are some effective humanizing moments, particularly one in which his wife, Clemmie (Kristin Scott Thomas) acknowledges what she and her children have had to sacrifice to help Churchill along his career as well as other moments meant to show his lighter side, but for the most part he’s the calm among the storm.

Throughout the movie, Joe Wright uses an aerial shot which starts close to the subject and zooms all the way up into the sky.  In some instances this shot remains within the room, such as when Churchill and his family toast to his new appointment, and in other moments it races up into the clouds, almost as if we’re headed straight for heaven.  This would be the “God” shot, reflecting his perspective of the world and reducing the characters to nothing more than dots.  In one instance we watch as the camera zooms up, following the eyes of a military leader who realizes he and his forces are doomed, before the camera crosses the paths of bomber planes overhead.  They drop their bombs, and the camera then travels back down to earth, following the bomb as it blows up the shelter where that man and his army were resting.

In other instance the camera zooms up into the sky as Churchill himself looks up, as if for a sign.  He and the rest of the country look for a higher power or divine intervention, anything to save them as time is running out.  Whatever Churchill is looking for, he isn’t finding it, but the rest of the country needs him.  Churchill is the God-like figure, the one in control of thousands of lives of both civilians and soldiers.  He’s the one who refuses the peace talks and who understands the gravity of sending 4,000 men to die in order to save 30,000.  He’s playing God.

Another recurring shot involves a slow motion tracking shot of the streets of London, reflecting Churchill’s own point of view.  He looks out on the world from the calm within his chauffeured ride to Westminster.  He observes their plight from his own bubble, a technique meant to separate him from the common folk, and in a sense making him a deity.  Later he will voluntarily get out of the car and ride the subway, making direct contact with the public.

Churchill’s sudden appearance delights those around him.  They share stories, and he asks their opinion on matters of great significance.  It’s their strength and resolve that helps him hold onto his own convictions, though it’s hard to believe he ever felt that lost.

Anyways, I’m taking too long to say very little.  Churchill is God, the person Britain needs in this trying time.  He comes through in the clutch, or really he just stays the same, and the people feed off his strength to help retrieve their soldiers from Dunkirk.

Darkest Hour is kind of electric.  It’s made with style, wonderful cinematography and sound design, and Gary Oldman’s Oscar-winning performance is well worth the Oscar.  It’s hard not to see right through this movie, recognizing its own sense of self-importance (i.e. Oscar bait), but Wright and company take care of business so well it’s hard not to be taken with this story.

That being said, the best parts of the movie came early on, in the small moments establishing the various characters.  One we know who’s who, they all become reduced to less interesting characters who just fill out the plot.  We have Churchill as the hero, King George as the man who butts heads with Churchill but eventually sees things his way.  There’s a man in the cabinet who constantly challenges Churchill and whom Churchill vanquishes in one of those long Oscar speeches that they show at the Academy Awards.  And it’s all fine, this is just a fine movie.  There’s another of those long Oscar speeches at the end of the movie, but it’s much less interesting than what came before.  A lot of this film is showy and occasionally over the top, but it involves a lot of people doing what they do best.

Up Next: The Stranger (1946), Clear History (2013), The Sacrifice (1986)/The Dead (1987)

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