Saturday, April 7, 2018

The Prime Minister's Speech

Films: Darkest Hour
Format: Blu-ray from DeKalb Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

For the next 800-1200 words I’m going to talk about Darkest Hour, but I’m also going to address what I see as a significant problem with the Oscars and the nominations. The reason for that is that Darkest Hour is one of those movies that serves as an excellent example for what I see as a continuing and continual problem. Oh, there are plenty of other potential examples. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is perhaps the best example I can think of in the last 10 years. Because it’s how my mind is currently working, I think I’m going to address that first.

The problem is that Oscar, or Oscar voters perhaps, don’t seem to know the difference between a movie being good and a movie being important, or at least about an important topic. I fully understand why many people in the film industry seemed to think that Darkest Hour was an important film. Depending on your political persuasion, this could well be seen as an inspiring story of someone standing up to face off against fascism when it appeared that fascism was taking over the world. I get that some will call it rousing. I understand this more or less memoir taken from Churchill’s life is something that people thing demands to be seen. But did it really need to be nominated for Best Picture?

Yes, that’s my issue here. Again, sure, it’s a fine movie and the story is a good one. Gary Oldman is absolutely unrecognizable behind the jowls and the wisps of hair. But both Logan and Wonder Woman could be seen as important movies, too, could they not? And at least from my perspective, both of those movies are far and away more rewatchable and more interesting than Darkest Hour.

And that’s really what I’m getting at here. Darkest Hour is a good movie about a critical period in world history. It’s also, though, about virtually the exact same period in world history that is covered by Dunkirk, just from the perspective of Churchill himself and the English government in a more general sense. It’s almost literally the same few days here—the film ends with title cards revealing the results of the evacuation from Dunkirk. It’s almost literally the flipside of Dunkirk’s coin.

The sell here, of course, is Gary Oldman. Oldman has long been a great actor and one very much in need of the sort of recognition that one gets from an Oscar nomination and win. Oldman’s work is almost uniformly good, even when the movie isn’t (I’m looking at you, Fifth Element). As Churchill, Oldman is what you would expect, although perhaps more fragile and less commanding than we have always been led to believe. It could be argued at least partly successfully that Oldman’s rise to the Oscar came at least in part from the quality of the makeup work in the film. There’s something in us that forgets that it’s not Oldman’s skill on display in that department—he’s the canvas when it comes to makeup and hair and costuming.

And it’s kind of a shame, because Oldman overshadows a lot of what would often be considered good and noteworthy work. Kristin Scott Thomas plays Churchill’s wife Clementine, and is both subservient to Churchill’s massive ego, under the thumb of his charisma, and still capable of being outraged by his spendthrift ways. Thomas is often a forgotten actor, capable and frequently delivering good, nuanced work in many a film. For her to have just a single Oscar nomination at this point in her career is staggering to me. The focus here is entirely on Oldman, though, which somehow seems fitting, since Churchill evidently kept everything focused on himself as well (and I’m not accusing Oldman of selfishness here). He is ably assisted in the film by a large cast, but especially Lily James as his secretary Elizabeth Layton, Stephen Dillane as Viscount Halifax, Ben Mendelsohn as George VI, and Ronald Pickup as Neville Chamberlain. But here again, these characters are constantly in the background. Layton is absent much of the film until the very end where she is depicted almost as his muse, which doesn’t make a great deal of sense.

And to that end, it’s worth noting that Darkest Hour seems to offer the idea that all of this hinged on a single speech, specifically the “We will fight them on the beaches…” speech. I have no idea if this is true or not. Since the film plays with the history of other people in the film (his secretary was named Elizabeth Nel, and despite what the film says, she didn’t have a brother who died at Dunkirk), who’s to say it didn’t play with Churchill’s?

The truth is that there is nothing particularly wrong with Darkest Hour. It’s certainly a film about a critical moment of history. Churchill’s grip on the English government when he was handed the reins was quite tenuous. He was (if the movie can be believed) moments away from being given a vote of no confidence and the government being handed over to Halifax. And yet it seems that this was the second-best movie about the events surrounding Dunkirk released in 2017.

Here’s the thing: I didn’t dislike Darkest Hour, but it’s the sort of movie that I absolutely can’t envision watching a second time. Oldman’s performance is good, but the story, once known, doesn’t hold a lot of mystery or need for revisiting. The machinations of power can be interesting, of course, but in the case of the English government, they are also fairly arcane. Perhaps if I knew their government better, this might end up being a more interesting film.

Why to watch Darkest Hour: Gary Oldman and the admittedly great makeup work.
Why not to watch: There’s another movie from the same year about the same thing that is better.


  1. I haven't seen Dunkirk yet but I have seen 2002's The Gathering Storm with Albert Finney as Churchill and Vanessa Redgrave as Clementine which effectively covers this exact same territory. I have to tell ya I was more impressed with it. Maybe because I was now familiar with the story it had less impact I can't say but I found this rather staid and drawn out.

    Oldman was good, he's a fine actor so that was no surprise, but I preferred Finney because I could still tell he was Finney but he evoked Churchill. With this Oldman was so concealed by the makeup I was distracted by it. KST did very well with what was handed her, agree about her lack of nominations but at least she has one, but Vanessa Redgrave's Clemmie was a more fleshed out character.

    Like you I can't see returning to it again though it was fine.

    1. I've seen The Gathering Storm with Finney as well, as well as the 2009 follow-up Into the Storm, which has Brendan Gleeson in the Churchill role and the always-wonderful and undervalued Janet McTeer as Clementine.

      All three are worth seeing. Once. All three are, I think, well-cast and well-acted and not particularly memorable.

  2. I guess we had different angles of approach. You're not going to like the trollish way in which I began my review of this movie. (And I'm sure you remember how much I disliked "Dunkirk.") That said, I completely understand your reservations.