When it comes to movies, people love to give the director the primary credit or blame.
For example, Darkest Hour, the new film starring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, is directed by Joe Wright, and my first inclination when writing about the film was to frame it within the context of Wright’s career to see what that context says about it. But that doesn’t seem correct. When Joe Wright first broke through as a filmmaker, he was hard to pin down. As source material goes, Pride & Prejudice has been done and done and done again, modernized and bastardized and twisted and inverted and hung out to dry. He managed to make a perfectly solid version of it, and it was a hit too, but that’s not really how you distinguish yourself. Atonement was a ballsy attempt at a book that many considered impossible to adapt, and as a film, it has a strong, abrasive quality that made it feel urgent. I hoped that was the direction Wright was going to go as a filmmaker.
Instead, in film after film, he seems to be struggling to figure out who he is and what stories he’s supposed to be telling. I like Hanna quite a bit, and there are things to like about his take on Anna Karenina, but man, when he misses the swing, it’s crazy. The Soloist is a bad film, full-stop, and Pan is a disaster. You look at all of those movies together, and there’s no voice that emerges, no unifying theme, no style or signature. He does not appear to be a filmmaker who has a clear picture of who he is or what he’s trying to say, and from film to film, it really depends on the material. If he’s working from a rock-solid script, then Wright just might pull it off.
So, then, let’s look at Darkest Hour within the context of Anthony McCarten’s career. He worked in English television, then produced and wrote The Theory of Everything, the awards darling about Stephen Hawking and his wife, Jane. McCarten earned an Oscar nomination for that film, both as writer and producer, and he actually won two BAFTAs. It’s safe to say that film transformed his career, and this is a follow-up that makes perfect sense for him, taking on another historical figure by examining a pivotal moment in their lives. McCarten is doing it again next year with the long-in-development Bohemian Rhapsody about Queen and Freddie Mercury, and he’s developing a John Lennon/Yoko Ono film as well. Clearly, he’s found a biopic groove here, and it’s his approach to the material that makes Darkest Hour interesting. He knows that it’s not just which story you’re telling, but how you tell it.
In the case of Winston Churchill, the moment that McCarten chose to focus on is a crisis point, the crisis that defined him and that gave us the image we have of him as the great orator, inspiring people around the world to stand against the advance of fascism in Europe. Playing him isn’t like playing a regular person. Even other famous people can’t really compare to the scale of fame of someone like Churchill, who has been portrayed so many times, in so many ways, that it’s almost impossible to imagine something fresh. You’re playing a person who became so big that they became an icon, and then an icon that became so big, they’re practically myth. Doing justice to that and also playing the human being? Good luck.
Why is why Gary Oldman is amazing. I don’t know if we say that often enough. I have been a fan as long as he has been making movies, and the excitement of seeing the work he did in his early films was a chemical buzz. I saw Sid and Nancy three times in the theater, and it made me want to fistfight the movie screen. Prick Up Your Ears was another great, rowdy, angry performance. But matching him with the right material seemed to be tricky. I love Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, and I have a soft spot for State of Grace, but it wasn’t until the one-two punch of JFK and Dracula that it felt like Hollywood finally figured it out. From that point on, Oldman seemed to be able to steer things, working on interesting projects with any filmmaker who he genuinely felt drawn to, and he took enough Hollywood big-money movies to allow him the freedom to experiment and support independent voices. Him taking on the challenge of Churchill was the first thing to get me interested in Darkest Hour, and the reason I’ll recommend this film to anyone and everyone is because Oldman is at his absolute best here. He must have really worked with the make-up crew to be sure that he wouldn’t lose any expressiveness and that he would be able to sell the appliances. You can do all the emotional work in the world and still have a film go down in flames because of bad make-up work. And there are plenty of actors who have felt restricted by it or who don’t know what to do with it. Look at Oldman in Hannibal. He seemed to relish the insane make-up they had him in, and he knew how to perform to get the best results out of the make-up.
The stories that are told about Churchill’s various appetites are horrifying. I can’t imagine living like that, and I’m a human beanbag with a bad back. Even I can recognize that Churchill ate and drank and smoked like he was trying to kill himself. He was a shrewd politician, and as the film opens, the British Parliament is calling for Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) to step down as Prime Minister. Behind the scenes, there is support for Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) to replace him, but not enough. The matter is already settled, even if the formal offer hasn’t been made yet. This is Churchill’s moment, one he’s been working towards for years. I think it’s amazing that a guy who drank the way Churchill did was ever allowed to hold an office, much less the most important office in the country during an actual time of war. But part of why there’s that larger-than-life mythology about him is because of those appetites and his ability to operate anyway. Churchill meets with King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) to discuss his appointment and it’s clear right away that the King isn’t convinced Churchill is right for the job.
Darkest Hour makes a fascinating double-feature with Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk from this summer. That film focused completely on the experiences of the people actually at Dunkirk, or the ones coming to rescue them, and left the politics out of it completely. Here, we see exactly the opposite. Aside from a few quick impressionistic glimpses, we don’t see Dunkirk at all, but we see the cutthroat political game that was being played away from the front lines. Churchill starts his work as Prime Minister without much in the way of visible support, and the film shows us how he won the support of his nation, both in the Parliament and in the streets. It is very old-fashioned in many ways, but it’s not stodgy. Again, you have to credit Oldman, who is so alive, so engaged in his performance that even when the film does something as blatantly full of shit as a late-in-the-movie subway ride, it feels like it’s okay because this is a movie-movie. Winston Churchill may not have actually had that conversation, but when he did finally make that impassioned address that closes out the film, he was speaking a language that was recognized by not only his countrymen, but people around the world.
Both Lily James and Kristin Scott Thomas make strong impressions as the women Churchill deals with at work and at home, and his scenes with them tend to be the most emotional of the film. Mendelsohn expertly charts the slow thaw of King George’s feelings for Churchill, and both Dillane and Pickup play their parts on the wrong side of history with the absolute confidence in their convictions that the roles require. McCarten’s script lays out the stakes very clearly, and it keeps a ticking clock running that creates an urgency, even if you know how things are going to play out. As a bounce back from the horror of Pan, this feels like a real win for Joe Wright. Darkest Hour is rousing and sincere, with burnished, beautiful photography by Bruno Delbonnel and a suitably inspiring score by Dario Marianelli. It’s handsome work across the board.
We’ve seen versions of this film before, and whether they realized it or not, they gently mirrored the structure of The King’s Speech from a few years ago, with everything ultimately coming down to how well Churchill does in delivering a speech. It’s definitely familiar territory, but delivered with skill by Wright and solidly built by McCarten, all of it wrapped around that solid gold performance by Oldman. Darkest Hour will not surprise anyone, but it will likely satisfy most audiences with its modest, honest charms.
Running time: 125 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic