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Non-Review Review: Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour is a powerhouse performance nested inside a fairly formulaic film.

In terms of plot, Darkest Hour is very much a familiar cinematic biography. Building off the template cemented by writer Peter Morgan on The Deal, The Queen, The Special Relationship and Rush, this is a film that explores its subject through the lens of a single event. The plot of Darkest Hour unfolds across May 1940, in the shadow the Second World War. It charts the life of Winston Churchill from the resignation of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to the evacuation of Dunkirk. It is tightly focused, and perhaps the better for that.

Winston, Loseton.

In many ways, Darkest Hour feels like a collection of pop culture standards. Churchill is such an iconic part of European history, and this month was so crucial, that audiences have almost reached saturation point with narratives documenting key moments in the life of the statesman. Darkest Hour cannot help but evoke shades of everything from The King’s Speech to The Crown to Dunkirk, all of which share some sense of the same time and place. Darkest Hour simply combines a lot of pop culture Churchill into what amounts to a “greatest hits” package.

With that in mind, it should be no surprise that Darkest Hour is elevated by the central performance from an almost unrecognisable Gary Oldman. If pop culture has synthesised Churchill’s history to a collection of “greatest hits”, then it is the delivery that truly matters. Oldman carries the film home.

Two-finger salute.

To be fair, Darkest Hour is never less than efficient in its storytelling and in its mechanics. Most obviously, Darkest Hour is aware of the pop cultural ubiquity of its central character, and even turns this into a minor recurring joke. (“Keep buggering on,” Churchill advises in an early phone call, as if suggesting a line of fashionable tote bags.) Churchill is notably and conspicuously absent from the opening scene of Darkest Hour, but even his absence shapes the narrative; other characters remark upon it, and his bowler hat is left almost as a calling card.

Darkest Hour understands that it is possible, and even easy, to reduce Winston Churchill to a collection of pop culture signifiers. In the shelter under Westminster, the Prime Minister marks his bunk with his iconic bowler hat and cane. A short recurring subplot in the film focuses on Churchill’s awkward attempted appropriation of the “V for Victory” sign and what his clumsy inversion of it means in “poorer quarters.”

Head-to-head.

When the film calls on Churchill to deliver his iconic and familiar stirring rhetoric, the film understands that the audience will likely be mouthing it alongside him, and so makes a point to show his young personal assistant (who copied down the speeches from Churchill’s dictation) mouthing alongside him. Darkest Hour understands on a fundamental level that it is dealing with a meme as much as a man, and embraces that fact.

At the same time, there is a clumsiness to the plotting of Darkest Hour. Not only does the film hit all of the expected beats for both a tightly focuses political biography and for a film about Winston Churchill, but it also declines to delve too deeply into the man himself. Darkest Hour makes a point to obscure or conceal any aspect of Churchill that might be unpalatable to modern audiences, that might portray add nuance to his historical position as the man who saved western civilisation from the Nazi horde.

He parliament what he said.

Darkest Hour repeatedly draws attention to Churchill’s privileged upbringing, even as it makes an effort to paint him as an outsider among the posh and disconnected political classes. “Do you know I’ve never ridden a bus?” he muses to his driver early in the film. “I think I can boil an egg, but only because I’ve seen it done.” He relates a story about an aborted attempt to take the Underground, which sets up a third act plot beat that was allegedly (very loosely) based on stories of Churchill slipping off into London during the Blitz, but which feels saccharine and trite.

Darkest Hour presents its central figure as a man trying to be of the people. One scene involves a conversation with a collection of common people about the grave danger facing the country, in which Churchill quotes the poet Thomas Babington Macaulay with a young black man on the tube. It is a plot beat that feels somewhat disingenuous, given the historical figure’s history of racism and imperialism. This is not to diminish Churchill’s importance to the Second World War, but it feels like an easy storytelling choice that preserves the idea of Churchill more than the reality.

It’s good to be the King.

Still, Darkest Hour is elevated by three key factors. As he did with Atonement, Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina, director Joe Wright approaches his period setting with the energy and vigour associated with young directors working on more contemporary films. Wright’s camera is always energetic and moving, always fascinated by the very act of observing. Wright ensures that the film’s period setting never feels stuffy or staid, instead composing ambitious tracking shots and long takes that really push the audience into the film. Darkest Hour moves.

Indeed, Wright’s biggest cinematic conceit in Darkest Hour is to focus on the action from above. Shots often begin or end from above, either pulling out from or zooming in towards the action on the ground level. The audience watches parliament argue from an omniscient vantage point, and gazes down on the horror of the German invasion of France from inside a plane. Wright uses these shots to underscore his central character’s distance and remove from the action, as if looking at a map and trying to imagine what life might be like to the people represented by pins on that map.

Mapping his ambitions.

While the plotting of the script is occasionally awkward and inelegant, the film benefits from a timely resonance. As with films like Dunkirk or Inglourious Bastards, Darkest Hour represents a welcome reversal of the early twenty-first century trend of prestige dramas like The Reader to humanise and empathise with Nazis. The central plot of Darkest Hour concerns attempts by members of Churchill’s War Cabinet to negotiate a peace with Nazi Germany, to continue the policy of appeasement and normalisation into the Second World War.

Darkest Hour represents a firm rejection of the idea that it is possible to negotiate or compromise with Nazis, understanding that any attempt to find middle-ground or to come to an understanding will inevitably serve their interests more than those of anybody else. “You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its jaws!” Churchill admonishes his War Cabinet, and he is entirely correct. In an era of false equivalences and when major media outlets are trying to “understand” fascism and supremacism, the moral logic Darkest Hour is endearingly straightforward.

Supporting performance.

However, the key strength of Darkest Hour remains Gary Oldman. Oldman’s central performance anchors Darkest Hour and holds the film together by sheer force of will. It is a remarkable physical transformation for Oldman, and the power of his performance is striking in an era where big-screen impersonations of Churchill must be nearing saturation point. Oldamn takes the role and makes it his own, which is no mean feat with a character both this iconic and this ubiquitous. Oldman excels, whether in small intimate moments or the barnstorming speeches.

Darkest Hour is a film that undoubtedly exists as a showcase for that central performance, as a framework which supports Oldman’s work. As a result, many of the film’s secondary and supporting characters feel overshadowed and squeezed out, struggling to gain a footing in a film that belongs entirely to the central actor and the central character. However, given the unrelenting force of that central performance, it is hard to complain.

Oh, Lords.

Darkest Hour is a reasonably solid film, with confident direction compensating for a clumsy script. However, the film is driven by its central performance.

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