In the time period between Christmas and New Year’s, my family spent two days with my dad’s parents. In those two days, we all went to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Darkest Hour together, movies I wasn’t particularly excited about, and that made one person fall asleep at each screening. I’m hoping to ring in the new year with more reviews, and certainly more articulate reviews about things I liked, rather than the rambly piece about The Work. Given that I should be posting a personal ballot in the coming months, that will definitely happen. But in the meantime, here is an unimpressed assessment of a new release, with another possible to come soon.
The one that has its talons deepest in the Oscar conversation, or at least in the most prominent categories, is Darkest Hour, the story of Winston Churchill’s (Gary Oldman) ascendancy to the seat of Prime Minister and subsequent organization of the Dunkirk evacuation. It’s a fraught story, one I didn’t realize was such an uphill battle for Churchill, newly anointed as a compromise choice with a somewhat shoddy record up till that point. Churchill himself seems nervous and unsure about the prospect, as his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) primps him for his meeting with the King and banters with him as encouragement. It’s a generous step for the film to depict his home life before fleshing his new political station, especially since the couple sparkle with so much warmth and humor in their conversations. In her first scene after Churchill accepts the position of Prime Minister, the couple has a celebratory drink at home with their adult children, who are never seen again. Clementine’s speech is a diplomatic love letter, recognizing that Churchill’s real love is to his country. It’s a credit to Scott Thomas that this speech and her performance throughout rings with as much good cheer and devotion as it does, and then the film recognizes her acknowledgement as number two in his life by more or less leaving her behind. She’s left to fret about financial woes that are only brought up once and bolster his confidence, romantically but without building him up from nothing. It’s a good sport rendering of a woman who relegated herself to being sidelined, and not every film with this Supportive Wife character needs to look at these characters through the angles that Nixon and The Lost City of Z do. Not all are able to either, but Clementine Churchill as written, directed and performed cannot help but pale next to what those films do with the same biopic archetype.
Still, if Churchill is unsure about the prospect of becoming Prime Minister, he and Clementine stand as the only characters who are remotely for him ascending to the position for a long while into the film. In Parliament, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), the previous PM, and Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), scheme to remove Churchill from his position to put Halifax in power in reaction to Churchill’s vehement refusal to even consider peace talks, going all out on the side of fighting the Nazis until Britain is no more. The arc itself is compelling, and would be even more so if the film hadn’t basically opened with Halifax stuttering his way through a refusal of the position of PM. He doesn’t give a real explanation then or in subsequent scenes, despite his turn-around carnivorousness for the position. Churchill himself even brushes aside the idea that Halifax would turn the position down, considering it unthinkable. So must we in the audience, if only because we never learn why he decided to fight tooth and nail for the job only after he had brushed it off his lap. But Chamberlain’s fear that Churchill will undo everything he stood for in office, as he stands on the brink of a cancerous death, makes plenty of sense, as does King George IV’s (Ben Mendelsohn) reticence to this blustery opponent. George dislikes Churchill as a person, a politician, and the Parliamentary grandstanding from the opposition that forced Chamberlain to lose his position. The ceremony of Churchill accepting the position of PM from George is pointedly awkward, the men standing yards away from each other and stiltedly conversing about when to have their weekly meetings. Churchill kisses the back of George’s hand, and George almost immediately wipes his hand on his back. Animosity is prowling around Churchill, and he does nothing to stop it save stomping it underfoot by trying to prove the assumptions of his opponents wrong.
I’ve seen several reviews that position Darkest Hour’s interpretation of Churchill as a refreshing antidote to the leadership in America, even heard this from my grandfather after the film ended, but it’s odd to see this position after so many of the insults hurled at Churchill are ones that have been at Trump. From the outset Churchill is demonstrably angry and uncooperative, plagued with criticism for his war-mongering tendencies, awful diet, brutishness, lying to the public, and terrible people skills. Aside from Churchill’s vivid eloquence, it makes some kind of sense for the shriveled orange sack of cheese running America in January 2017 would be enamored with this film and the man at his center.
The film also shares in Churchill’s pro-war tendencies, one that can’t simply be excused as being subsumed into his own point of view. Small scenes without Churchill, with Chamberlain, with Halifax, with new secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) keep the film from claiming a full POV with Churchill. Though departing from the protagonist doesn’t necessarily mean we’re outside their subjectivity – look at Birdman or, again, Nixon – neither Joe Wright’s directorial stylization or his interpretation of the narrative suggest that we’re seeing it through Churchill’s perspective. Of course, fighting Nazis to the death is always a superior option, and though Darkest Hourdoesn’t mock Chamberlain and Halifax’s quest for peace, it frames them – Halifax especially – as outright antagonists. The decision makes sense, since the two were trying to force him out of office, but the film primarily portrays their efforts for peace talks as provoking a scenario to force Churchill out of office. There’s little sense of what either man genuinely sees in the option of surrendering to Hitler, and because of this their beliefs register only as flat opposition rather than an actual political stance. Wright is obviously filming for an audience that’s lived through this and knows exactly how World War II will turn out, but that doesn’t explain or excuse his refusal to illustrate why surrendering in the hope of keeping British culture alive is such a tantalizing option, nor why anyone would believe Hitler in the first place.
Where does this leave Churchill? In a way, who cares? Wright and Oldman do a fine interpretation, not getting gummed up on showing off how “transformative” it is. In fact, the cast handles their vocal and cosmetic changes with little fanfare across the board. Similarly, Wright does some of his best work in Darkest Hour filming Churchill’s speeches, capturing the fluctuations of the mood in the room as well as Churchill’s own state of mind in each speech, which moments are earnest or performative or compensating or meant to rile up his audience. Oldman also slips in more vulnerability than is necessarily scripted, willing to show how much this man is out of his depth and fully aware of the past mistakes he believes should have kept him from this position in the first place. But there’s something ultimately hollow about the men and women that Wright throws onto the screen, and it’s noticeable that the film’s central character is as bloodlessly realized as the figures floating around him. We hear him orate his will to keep Britain under its own sovereignty and to fight Hitler to the death, just as we hear Clementine’s fondness for her husband, as we hear George resents that Chamberlain was forced out of office, as we hear Chamberlain and Halifax want to negotiate with Hitler. None of the characters have a genuine interiority, just goals they want to support and accomplish, and Wright’s visual flourishes end up backfiring as the characters remain so opaque. Zooming towards the sky as Churchill looks up in contemplation (where I realized my sister had briefly fallen asleep), filming his lunches with King George in a wide shot to focus on the enormity of the room, over and over these vital meetings are depicted with outsized embellishments, ones that would work better if the operators involved were given a sense of depth or personhood that motives their political ambitions.
All in all, Darkest Hour winds up a politically muddled and narratively stodgy object. The effect of framing Halifax and Chamberlain as Churchill’s most physically present enemies is disorienting, especially since the Nazis are such a comparatively abstracted threat, the war kept largely off-screen despite being all everyone talks about. Dunkirk is allowed to keep the Germans offscreen in nearly the same way because their presence is omniscient and forceful, the stakes fatally present throughout. Nixon is even more stylistically and narratively baroque, but it commits viciously to the interiority of its central characters and the men and women in his orbit and how Nixon’s actions have so much political and personal history motivating his decisions. Neither Joe Wright’s direction nor Anthony McCarten’s screenplay digs as deeply into the situation as it might, refusing to complicate or personalize it for the participants and gives no room for the cast to do so either. It’s politically thin and stylistically excessive beyond it scope, a dire combination that leaves this vital history feeling under-explored, overblown, and utterly ill-served.