05 January, 2018

The Right Loudmouth for the Right Time


Darkest Hour, like The Last Jedi, is another entry into a univferse that, unlike Star Wars, nobody asked for. The world does not need another Winston Churchill biopic. Cinema (and TV) is littered with them and, if I may speak for the room, exactly zero people are clambering for a hagiography about a fat loudmouth in charge of the world’s most powerful country. Just a thought.

Where Darkest Hour shines is where it is most safe. Through fantastic performances, a solid script that builds one scene on top of another, and some lovely, energetic film-making from Joe Wright (Hanna, Atonement) and crew, Darkest Hour dodges most of the pitfalls of the genre (and its subject). What results is one of more likable biographical films of one of history’s “Great Men” of the past decade and a solid, respectable historical drama.

The reason Darkest Hour works is that it refuses to be a hagiography, and while it does romanticize the prime minister, it also paints a portrait of a man that is perfectly worthy of hatred and derision. Instead of asking you to respect Winston Churchill, it plays with the that tension.

On paper Churchill, is the last man that anybody should ever want to handle the UK during war time and, on the other hand, his blundering, boisterous personality and steely stubbornness is actually exactly what the UK needed. Both of these things are true. He's a barking drunk and one of the great men in all of world history. Both of these things are true and the movie rings both of these truths for all that it is worth-- and rightfully points out that few people ever even manage to be either of those things.

German not being compulsory in school, we all know how the actual narrative ends. What Joe Wright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten do is they create a drama that isn't about whether Churchill will make the right decision (for once), but why he come to these conclusions. It's a long journey to that point, with the first half feeling like setting the scene more than telling the story. Darkest Hour plays like a classical piece of music with a slow beginning and ends with a powerful crescendo. As stuffy and as white as it is, by the end, it can't be described as being boring.

The performances in this film are pitch perfect from front to back. That probably shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s stocked with some of the Commonwealth’s best character actors and it gives them a lot to work with, which is doubly amazing considering how 80% of this movie seems like old white dudes arguing in rooms (I would contend that sometimes it’s okay to be in the mood for that).

So, Gary Oldman is great. We all know that. I’m just putting that out there so we can move on. He dissolves into the role in the way that, well, only Gary Oldman can. I mean, you know, he’s Gary fucking Oldman.

What Oldman does right (and what Wright does right) is that they don’t just do a tribute band version of Churchill. We all know the voice and the speeches and as appealing as hearing those things is (I have an LP of Churchill speeches that I listen to ever once and a while because, damnit, they still work), often times the most interesting cover songs are the ones that play around with the melody, the tempo, or the instrumentation. (Link a bunch of cool covers here).

Again: It’s Gary Oldman. He could play Margaret Thatcher and I would buy it (not that he could make me not hate her).

The supporting actors around Oldman are equally, if less loudly, wonderful.

Kristin Scott Thomas turns out wonderully as Clementine Churchill, imbuing her role with more class and grace in the few scenes that she has in the picture. Like Gary Oldman, she's Kristen Scott Thomas. I'm not equipped to talk about what a fantastic actor she is. She just is. Just look at her.

Actually, you know what? Where's my Clementine Churchill movie? Get on that one, Hollywood.

Nobody disapproves like Stephen Dillane on Game of Thrones and that remains true in this film. He plays Chruchill's primary rival for control of Parliament and, ostensibly, the most reasonable, best-informed guy in the room, who more or less proves that just because you've got all of the facts on your side, that doesn't mean that you're right-- especially if you don't have morality on your sides. So, you know, he plays another version of Stannis Baratheon, but this time he doens't lose his head (spoilers for Game of Thrones).

Lily James also turns out a wonderful performance in a role that a lesser actor (and director and crew), would be deemed politely as “thankless.” In this film, she serves as an entry point into the film, as well as its almost sole POV from a normal human being.

Also: Shout out to my main man Ben Mendelsohn! We did it, Mendo! We feasting!

Wright et al remind us that pugnaciousness in the face of fascism isn’t fanaticism, it is survival. The film reminds us that the future of democracy lies with the people and not with the so-called ruling class. Lastly, it reminds us that flawed men can do good things and that good men can be wrong, and, maybe most importantly, that the solutions to our most obvious problems are not easy. They’re hard won. That often people must suffer in order to learn. Or, at least it alludes to all of these things. As a film, Darkest Hour seeks to embed our better angels within the biography of one of history’s Great Men.

The more I think about it, the more I think I love it. Ultimately, politics will probably dissuade a lot of people from seeing it. It will also certainly keep a lot of people from enjoying it. As much as I sympathize with these people, as much as they are not wrong, I also have to point out that this is film. This is a movie. This is a story.

Darkest Hour plays with and engages with history and story and myth in a way that I still cannot quality. It left me wanting to cry for reasons that I can’t quite pin down. It’s an imperfect story about an imperfect subject told through an imperfect medium, and at this time of night, in this time of my life, in this level of my sobriety, I am completely incapable of finding a better encapsulation of just what cinema is supposed to be.

In short, I liked Darkest Hour quite a bit. It's a solid drama, bolstered by an excellent cast and energetic directing, but more than anything, it's an old-fashioned tale about why character matters. So, perhaps the world was clamoring for another Churchill biopic, whether it knew it or not.

James Kislingbury is a writer, a podcaster, and would kill for five minutes alone with this Hitler guy. You can donate to his Patreon . You can buy the book he edited here (and on eBay). You can also follow him on Twitter. Also, if you well and truly give a shit hmu on my Paypal. Want to buy me a coffee? Get at my Ko-Fi. Happy new year!