31 Days, 31 Movies 12/17: Darkest Hour
I cannot imagine there will ever be a time in my life where I won’t want to watch World War II movies. Among the many travesties that have come from America’s current engagement in the Middle East one of the lesser ones is it will not give us the decades and decades of amazing cinema that WWII has. Just this year alone there have been two fantastic World War II films: Dunkirk and now Darkest Hour. The real-life drama of good overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds against pure evil has never been as tangible in modern human history and even though you know how every single one ends they never get less riveting.
After coming off one of the biggest flops of the last few years in Pan, Joe Wright goes back to where he has found success in the past. Darkest Hour is another character driven historical film led by a charismatic and extraordinarily talented actor to add to his filmography. If we can get a trilogy of Gary Oldman-Joe Wright films out of this like we did with Keira Knightley I will be all the more pleased.
Darkest Hour tells the story of the United Kingdom in May of 1940, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) has lost the support of the Labour party and many of his own colleagues in the conservative parliament and is planning to step down. Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) is nominated to take his position over the more fancied Edward Halifax (Stephen Dillane). Over the next few days Churchill is faced with some of the gravest decisions of the war, the main focus of the film is a suggested peace treaty with Hitler and the Axis armies. The film covers one of the few unfamiliar stories of the war, a look behind the diplomacy and governance in the most dire moments of the English history. Darkest Hour romanticizes Churchill, whose faults as a leader and as a man were certainly not limited to being a little too gruff and liking whiskey. And there is some poetic license taken with the events of the film–most evidently when Churchill takes a ride on the London Underground and interacts with the common people of England–it is a beautiful idea but even in the moment feels a little too fantastical. On the other hand though, I am not one who has ever cared one way or the other if my historical fiction is slightly more fiction than history and I’ve never understood how upset people seem to get at films when they find them less than completely historically accurate. There’s no names Rose Bukater or Jack Dawson either by the way.
Joe Wright is a skilled filmmaker, there is a panning shot as Churchill rides through the streets of London that is just gorgeous and the dark shroud that seems to hangover the film is a subtly beautiful touch in the lighting, and Anthony McCarten has proven himself with 2015’s The Theory of Everything and 2011’s Death of a Superhero to be a talented writer. But the success of this film lies mostly on the shoulders of an incredibly talented cast. At this point, anyone arguing American vs English actors with you has no ground to stand on. Until that day on which an American plays an Englishman in a movie Americans have very little argument in their favor. The sheer amount of world-class actors such a small island seems to produce is statistically inconceivable, the supporting cast is littered with them. In comparatively minor roles there is Kristin Thomas who plays Clementine Churchill, Hannah Steele playing Abigail Walker, and Adrian Rawlins who plays Hugh Dowding. And those are actors who are one or two scenes in the film. I could go down the list of supporting cast members all of whom were masterful in their performances, be it Ronald Pickup or Ben Mendelsohn who is having quite the run since Bloodline or Stephen Dillane who steals scene after scene as Lord Halifax, but we would literally be here all day. But I think I would be remise if I didn’t mention Lily James, she plays Churchill’s secretary Elizabeth Layton, and after what I thought was a drab performance in Baby Driver she amazes alongside Gary Oldman. And speaking of Oldman. I could watch Gary Oldman play Winston Churchill for another 10-hours. It is rare, even with the plethora of fantastic movies I’ve seen this year, that the end credits will begin to roll on a film and I find myself wanting it to have been longer. Not because of an unfinished narrative or a lack of cohesive ending but just because I wanted to watch more of these actors.
A stellar supporting cast and a Oscar-worthy lead performance by Gary Oldman are more than enough to mask some of Darkest Hour’s short comings. A lack of historical accuracy or objectivity for it’s subject will likely unfairly haunt this movie but as WWII dramas of stories away from the front lines go there has been few better in recent years.