Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Movie Review: Darkest Hour (2018)

The plot: After the resignation of the then-current British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) is chosen to take his place. As he settles into his higher position, and tries to deal with his own parliament's apprehension about his policies, it seems that he will have to deal with more than just the approaching Nazi forces if he wants to see Great Britain survive this war.

Gary Oldman has a very healthy pedigree of character work behind him, with such amazingly-realised villains under his belt as the psychotic victim Mason Verger in Ridley Scott’s Hannibal, the mesmerizingly weird drug dealer Drexl from True Romance, even the wonky-bonkers scientist Dr. Smith in the 1998 version of Lost In Space. Between all of these, he has shown that not only can he breathe all the life into a particular role, he manages to shine even in less-than-ideal material. With all this in mind, it should come as no surprise that is yet again unrecognisable in the lead role, creating this grumbling thunderstorm of a presence that lets the British Lion roar when he is called upon to do so.

Opposite him, Thomas does well enough as his wife and manages to convey a definite naturalistic chemistry with Oldman, making their scenes together rather sweet if not occasionally jarring. Lily James as Churchill’s secretary continues her personal streak of only just managing to perform at the base line since there isn’t a whole lot she brings to the table through her individual performance. Pickup and Stephen Dillane as Chamberlain and Viscount Halifax respectively serve as the more vocal opposition to Churchill’s reign with the Parliament, and they do quite nicely with the behind-closed-doors scheming they are given. And then there’s Ben Mendelsohn as King George, and considering I’ve gone over at least two other iterations of this same character in past reviews, this is honestly my favourite one yet. He manages admirably with George’s real-life mannerisms and inflections, and his scenes opposite Oldman make for some of the film’s most affecting moments. It still feels me with joy knowing that the rest of the world can see what this guy is capable of and is giving him the chance to let it shine.

This film is directed by Joe Wright, whom we last checked in on with the still-astoundingly terrible Pan. Knowing how horrifyingly misjudged that turned out, it’s a good if not unexpected turn that this film actually holds together as a single production. Part of that is how he’s back in his comfort zone of rather stately and rustic British period dramas, with the other part being that he isn’t stuck with Hugh Jackman as a pirate singing Smells Like Teen Spirit while children dig for “pixium”. Yeah, I still hold a grudge against him to this day for that little embarrassment, but again, that’s not what we get here. Instead, we have Wright and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Inside Llewyn Davis, Big Eyes, Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children) creating some fantastically striking imagery out of this story. Like the halls of Parliament, which are shown as this washed-out lion’s den where only the loudest of roars can win a debate, and the simple use of a handkerchief can mean the difference between victory and sound defeat. The framing for this entire film is quite gorgeous as well, employing Wright’s teasing with theatrics over his filmography to create captivating shots, like the recurring motif of one looking up at the stars to show the difference between fighting on the ground level and looking down on the action as markers on a map.

However, this is all style that we’re talking about so far; the substance of the film, on the other hand, isn’t nearly as rosy and that comes down to the simple fact that, many times over, we have already seen this story. Winston Churchill got a pretty damn good biopic last year with Churchill, the battle of Dunkirk that serves as a main story development here got its own intense recreation last year with Christopher Nolan’s film of the same name, and World War II stories have been Oscar cannon fodder for decades by now. Not to say that these stories don’t deserve to be retold; just that, if they are to be retold this close to each other, they should at least offer something fresh to keep things interesting. Sadly, nothing of the sort really shows up here. It lacks the unshakeably human touch of a film like Churchill, one that showed the historic figure as a flawed man but also someone who could bring an entire nation together against the threat of tyranny. The more that this film talks about how Oldman’s Churchill is a drunkard and insane and so driven by bloodlust that talks of peace are out of the question, the clearer it becomes that Oldman, for as good as his performance is, doesn’t really have that much of a character to work with. Well, not one worth being the star of his film, at least.

This is likely due to the fact that this film’s script has contemporary political perspectives well in mind, with historical precedent that the Nazis are indeed made of vile being the only real clue presented by the film that Churchill was doing the right thing. Not only that, that same mentality ends up leading the audience and the lead character down a road of needing to be more than words and bring the people together, a stance that the other Churchill film started at. Although, with that said, that notion of Churchill needing to become the people’s champion does end up leading to the best moment in the film. Not only that, even considering what’s surrounding it, it is a damn good moment at that. It involves Churchill taking the train for what is purportedly his first time on the way to Parliament. While on the train, he converses with the other passengers about what he should do and they give him an answer that ends up clearing his head for the big climactic speech. This moment, one that emphasizes the will of the people as far as political decision-making is concerned, is a highly effective sentiment and it manages to give the film a serious shot in the arm. Sadly, it happens all too late and by the time it sets in that this was indeed a great moment, both it and the film overall has already finished.

All in all, this is what cultural burnout looks like. With previous, extremely recent examples in cinemas involving Churchill, Dunkirk and WWII in general, this film doesn’t manage to cover enough new ground or even tend to the ground that has already been trodden on to be as effective as it should be. The acting is still solid and I am in no way going to take away from the dramatic and visual aspects of this that work, but quite honestly, this feels like the made-for-TV version of several stories that most audiences will have already seen in vastly-superior forms.

This ranks lower than The Commuter, and that right there should explain the problem: The latest in a long string of Liam Neeson action flicks still managed to feel less like a shadow of what came before it than this critically-acclaimed war drama. That, and the Goldman Sachs one-liner ended up being far more inspiring than an unfortunate bulk of what can be found here. However, by that same token of shit we’ve seen before, this still has some very good technical chops to it and some of the performances are downright impressive. As such, it fares better than Mary And The Witch’s Flower, where pretty much nothing contained within was worth trudging through the uninspired whole to get to.

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