If director Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, Anna Karenina) wanted to burnish his cinematic credentials and establish himself as a filmmaker capable of making movies with substance, he’s succeeded with Darkest Hour. If, however, Wright, who answered audience questions following the ArcLight Hollywood screening I attended this week (see my notes below), sought to make a great movie, his picture about Prime Minister Winston Churchill falls short.
The problem with Darkest Hour is not its leading actor, Gary Oldman, an outstanding performer in nearly every movie in which he appears. Despite uneven directing and questionable makeup, Oldman (Book of Eli, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Batman Begins, The Professional, JFK) often shines. As his resilient secretary, Lily James (Baby Driver, Cinderella) also stands out. Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) is less fortunate as Mrs. Churchill in an underdeveloped role. The problem with Darkest Hour is its lack of depth. Wright underplays the leader’s greatness and overplays his fallibility, leaving a lighter impression of a heavyweight leader who single-handedly rallied a great Western state to save itself from annihilation.
Churchill’s part of the story barely grazing this year’s Dunkirk is a remarkable tale of courage, grit and mastery of facts, resolve and history. Wright’s emphasis on Churchill’s idiosyncrasies and doubting, as against the confidence, knowledge and principles he used to guide Britain to defeat Nazi Germany, leaves too much that’s essential offscreen and too much of what is not essential on screen.
Close-up shots and scenes of Churchill in doubt, deep thought and consternation, which Wright takes as fundamental to Churchill’s greatest decisions, contrast with the grand scale of his extraordinary call to glory. Of course, it’s legitimate to portray this British prime minister as mired in doubt. But in portraying Churchill’s doubt, and suggesting that how he eased or alleviated it by means of the approval of others, drawing strength from encounters with those some might refer to as commoners, Darkest Hour minimizes the scale and brilliance of the achievements.
Screenwriter Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything) delivers the lines for a clear and coherent case of soaring heroism with realism. The story’s so involving thanks to his script that you can’t stop watching Churchill gallivant with his port, brandy and cigars, citing Cicero and military maps. Oldman depicts with relish Winston Churchill’s eccentricities such as his aversion to the noise of typing keys, his dread of single-spaced copy and his penchant for enunciation and working with young women in his bedroom while naked or half-naked. The stirring words stir — he stresses “buoyancy”, insists that “France must be saved” and plainly asserts that, against Hitler, Britain must reject living in “a slave state”, “wage war” against Germany and that “nothing less than victory will do” “if necessary alone” — while he’s fully self-aware, thanks to his wife.
“Never surrender to servitude and shame,” Oldman’s Churchill says with thunderous conviction.
A man with such forethought, wisdom and rationality needs more than doubt to galvanize an empire to unite against a tyrant and defend itself. Darkest Hour, more than the movie about a similarly inspiring British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, The Iron Lady, misses the depth. It is not enough to see that Winston Churchill experienced self-doubt as a way toward accomplishing his greatest moments. Portraying how and why he marshaled optimism and put it toward putting down doubts would have accounted for moments in full. As such, Darkest Hour ends up being too slight, despite Gary Oldman’s finest efforts, for a proper account of the undaunted British hero. The score by Dario Marianelli (Agora, Atonement, A Long Way Down) accentuates the film at its best.
Director Q & A Notes
Director Joe Wright discussed his film Darkest Hour with one of those fawning press types at the ArcLight Hollywood this week.
The director’s comments explain a lot. Wright said that his commercially and critically panned movie Pan lead to his own self-doubt, from which he gained an appreciation for a historical figure that he said he really didn’t see as having much practical relevance to his own life. He also told a heartbreaking story about the late John Hurt being cast in Darkest Hour as Neville Chamberlain (played by Ronald Pickup). Hurt, Wright told the audience, had been diagnosed with cancer. During the first day of rehearsals, Wright explained, John Hurt (V for Vendetta, Contact) got out of bed, slipped and crushed his hip. Sadly, he was unable to perform thereafter.
Wright also entertained the audience with tales of Gravity director Alfonso Cuaron providing crucial career guidance, Wright’s admiration of movies by Bergman, Fellini, Bertolucci and, for his economy and “precise storytelling”, Hitchcock, and, tellingly, given his preference for playing with scale and characters playing God, Wright’s parents both being puppeteers. He said puppetry gave them as artists a great sense of autonomy. His next project, he said, is a movie adaptation of a novel titled Stoner.