Darkest Hour (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Darkest Hour (2017)

Enjoy the piece? Please share this article on your platform of choice using the buttons above!

The beaches are in peril.  Nazi Germany is on the march, beginning Hitler's conquest of Europe, and Parliament sits divided on how to respond.  The only way forward is compromise, setting the stage for Winston Churchill to fly or falter under the pressure of his appointment to Prime Minister.  Joe Wright directs Darkest Hour, with the screenplay written by Anthony McCarten, and stars Gary Oldman and Kirstin Scott Thomas.

Darkest Hour plays like a riff on one of England's oldest traditions, pulling out a production of Shakespeare's Henry V when the country is facing hard times.  Only in Darkest Hour, the mighty leader is a compromise slob who can barely string coherent sentences together in his barely restrained bloodlust who is appointed by the shadowy upper-crust needing a potential fall guy.  Rare is the motion picture that combines disdain for the upper class, astonishment that governments survive long enough to do any kind of good, and still manage to be a fully rousing experience.

I have some hesitation in giving it a full recommendation because Darkest Hour repeats some arguments that enrage me.  Chief among them is the idea that leaders come to us via divine providence and their flaws are what give them strength.  Director Joe Wright anticipates this somewhat, making the bulk of these arguments come from the exquisite Kirstin Scott Thomas as Clementine Churchill.  When she intones that Winston's lack of grace builds him up, it's hard not to hear echoes of those who defend Donald Trump's similar (to put it charitably) awful viewpoints.  Yet, Thomas says these lines with a hint of humored reservation, and Gary Oldman's near-slobbering take on Winston does little to make the line ring true.

The teasing relationship between Winston and Clementine Churchill is an unexpected detour in Darkest Hour.

This is a viewpoint I can get behind.  Despite grand selfish narratives to the contrary, history is rarely built on the backs of single individuals.  In the case of Darkest Hour, Winston is presented as a deeply flawed man who managed to capture the spirit of England with drunken rambles and the odd trip out to see the people.  Modern-day liberals would do well to take these scenes to heart, as they show a direct outreach to the general population conservatives and the growing leftist coalition understand much better.

Oldman's performance is fascinating because it is so off-putting.  Even in the magnificent Selma, Ava DuVernay presented Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as a fierce leader.  Wright and Oldman seem dead-set on a vision of Winston that could have stumbled out of National Lampoon's Animal House.  It's the opposite of flattering, with the first glimpse of Winston coming from a spark as he lights a cigar while laying in bed with the darkness surrounding him.  The building impression is that history gathered around Winston like the runny eggs and spittled scotch he takes in the morning, less that Winston himself is responsible for making the history happen.

This leads to one of the fascinating visual threads throughout Darkest Hour, how Wright shows the theatricality of governance keeps people from understanding the real deal behind-the-scenes.  In Parliament, thundering speeches rattle off amid a cacophony of disgruntled politicians as the spotlight shines harshly on one side while the other is left to stew in darkness.  A moment later, the tip-top leaders come together for a quiet meal while Wright politely rotates the camera from one speaker to the next.  Wright's point here is another I respect, the sound and fury of the public stage means little next to the brokered power deals away from it.  Instances of people like Winston stowing the power away are rare and come from extraordinary circumstances.

Wright, coming from the flop of Pan, rededicates himself to the stage-play visuals that defined Anna Karenina.  There are some stunners here - like when navigating the backroom deals with a single shot containing three different conversations in the mid, back, and foregrounds.  I also love the sound design, the groaning crank of time as the calendar rolls from one day to the next.  Then there are the moments that cinema provides where stage-plays cannot, such as the grueling crane shot of a disappearing soldier hearing the news of no evacuation only for the camera to come crashing down as their position in Dunkirk is bombarded.

Two men not wishing to share the spotlight while fearful the opposition might accumulate enough power to push the other out of the way.

The overall gist of Darkest Hour is that neither the public nor private faces of government can be completely trusted.  That's true of many things, but Anthony McCarten's screenplay wriggles jagged gems of dialogue from this perspective.  An early cut in response to a question about where Winston is, "Ensuring his fingerprints are not on the murder weapon," just about says it all for the effectiveness of the government and the role Winston wishes for himself.  Later, Winston is reduced to a pathetic puddle at one point, privately conversing with FDR (David Strathairn) with the absurd suggestion the United States Destroyers Winston's government paid for be pulled across the Canadian border via horses.

Those hoping for an examination into the ghastly crimes committed by Winston will need to look elsewhere.  Darkest Hour is enjoyable because of Wright's often slack-jawed wonder that a collection of humans this morally inept and professionally incapable could muster defense against the Nazis.  It's not the most reassuring of thoughts, yet I type here in English and not German. So I have to admit even the most wretched of us may impact history in ways not immediately apparent - for better or worse.

If you enjoy my writing or podcast work, please consider becoming a monthly Patron or sending a one-time contribution! Every bit helps keep Can't Stop the Movies running and moving toward making it my day job.

Darkest Hour (2017)

Directed by Joe Wright.
Screenplay written by Anthony McCarten.
Starring Gary Oldman and Kirstin Scott Thomas.

Posted by Andrew

Comments (0) Trackbacks (0)

No comments yet.

Leave Your Thoughts!

Trackbacks are disabled.