Darkest Hour.

Darkest Hour seems to have made a late push in awards season, landing a Best Picture nomination that I think would have been a total shock to reviewers back in November, as the consensus was that Gary Oldman was great as Winston Churchill but the movie itself was just fair. That might even be generous – this is kind of a bad movie around a good performance boosted by great makeup, and utterly hokey in so many spots that I’d warn anyone unfamiliar with the true history of that period away from the movie because it’ll give them the wrong idea.

The story takes place in May of 1940, as British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, the champion of the appeasement policy that handed the Sudetenland to Adolf Hitler because dictators are always satisfied with modest gains, loses a vote of no confidence in Parliament and resigns his position, creating a vacuum that is filled by the adipose, sodden Winston Churchill, a choice that seems to satisfy nobody. The King is terrified of Churchill’s unpredictable mouth, while members of Churchill’s own party doubt him based on his own history of questionable policy choices. Churchill takes the reins just as Belgium is about to fall, as is France’s Maginot line, which leads to the events that begin the far superior film Dunkirk. Over the course of Darkest Hour, Churchill must decide whether to negotiate terms with the Nazis or to resolve to fight, knowing that the Germans would likely attempt to invade Britain, all while dealing with duplicity from within his own party, including a very British coup attempt by Lord Halifax.

You know how it ends – Churchill declines to negotiate, arguing that Hitler would never adhere to any terms; he orders the civilian effort to evacuate the British troops trapped at Dunkirk, which succeeds beyond any expectations; and the Germans begin the bombing of London known as the Blitz. It was a decisive point in the war, and given Hitler’s decisions to wipe his ass with other treaties and agreements he’d made with the Allies, the right one in hindsight. What we get here, though, isn’t true or even particularly fair to anyone, including Churchill, whom Oldman portrays as addled enough by liquor that you could wring him out. The process involved in getting to this decision may have been ad hoc, as portrayed in the film, but the climactic scene, set in a subway car, is a complete fabrication, dripping with British jingoism and seasoned with a heavy dose of political correctness as well. It’s as subtle as a children’s story, and less reliable too.

Oldman is very good as Churchill, and truly unrecognizable under the prosthetics, makeup, and accent – he disappears into the role in a literal sense, as well as a figurative one. Oldman is a very talented actor whose work I’ve long admired, including his turn as the iconic George Smiley in 2011’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and, of course, his creation of an iconic film character in his role as Sirius Black. Here, though, it’s hard to separate the impression from the performance; he’s so busy doing the voice, the walk, the bug-out eyes that I found myself questioning whether the praise heaped upon him was more a function of how much he looks and sounds like the modern impression of Churchill. (If you can’t picture any of this, think “drunk Alfred Hitchcock” and you’re about 90% of the way there.)

The generally incredible cast here is otherwise wasted on silly or trivial roles. Kristin Scott-Thomas plays Churchill’s too-perfect wife and seems to be here primarily to look old and humanize the Prime Minister. Lily James plays a real person who was Churchill’s assistant, but didn’t take that job until well after the events of the movie, and seems to be here primarily to look cute and give the audience some cheap emotional moments. (There’s a shot of her walking that begins at her shoes and works up to her face that came off as leering; there’s absolutely no reason to show her in that light unless the intention was to remind viewers that, hey, Lily James is an attractive woman.) Samuel West, who was excellent in the TV mini-series Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell*, is one-note as Anthony Eden, Churchill’s Secretary of War. The one supporting performance that stood out in a positive light was Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI; if you don’t know Mendelsohn’s name, you might know his face; he played the worst of the various sociopaths in 2010’s Animal Kingdom and has made a career of playing villains, but here gives ol’ Bertie a bit of humanity and providing one of the film’s accurate subplots, the growth in the King’s relationship with Churchill from mutual distrust to a sort of professional friendship, some needed credibility.

(King George VI was known for having a speech impediment, and Mendelsohn does his best to reproduce it. Lord Halifax couldn’t pronounce the letter ‘r,’ and Stephen Dillane incorporates that into his speech as the character, while also seeming to pronounce everything from somewhere two feet behind his face. And Oldman is also doing an impression for the entire movie. The end result, while perhaps true to the characters’ actual speech, is that I had a devil of a time understanding everybody; it’s one time where less accuracy might have made for a better film.)

I’ve seen eight of the nine Best Picture nominees, and this is easily the worst movie; the fact that this got a nomination, and the Academy left one spot open, while The Florida Project was not nominated is absolutely galling. If you want some rah-rah history, and don’t mind being taken for a ride along the way, Darkest Hour is superficially entertaining. It’s just not very good history, and once you leave the theater, the ecstasy of the film’s resolution will fade all too quickly.

* One of the trailers before the film was for the upcoming movie, 7 Days in Entebbe, retelling the famous 1976 Israeli military operation in Uganda, where IDF commandos rescued over 100 hostages who’d been taken by pro-Palestinian terrorists and German idiots. Shimon Peres is portrayed in the film by Eddie Marsan, who played Mr. Norrell in the above-mentioned mini-series. Trailers can be very misleading, but this at least made me want to see the film, as everything except the choice of music looked spectacular.

Comments

  1. I’ve summed up “Darkest Hour” to people who haven’t seen the film as “a better performance than a film.” I knew that the subway scene was complete fiction, but by that point they needed an excuse to humanize Churchill who, for all his alternating bluster and self-doubt, had come off as something of a caricature by that point in the film.

    That being said, I really won’t mind if Oldman wins the Oscar. Day-Lewis and Chalamet were really good, but I still think Oldman was deserving.

    Wait, Keith, you didn’t like the choice of “I’d Love to Change the World” in the 7 Days in Entebbe trailer? It’s not as if that song was about a completely different event or anything…

    • Vietnam, right? I love the guitar work in that song, but the homophobic line at the beginning is a dealbreaker.

    • Yes, it builds to that, but it is definitely anti-Vietnam. And that line, yea, really ruins an otherwise pretty good song. I still like the song for the music, but those lyrics, even for that time, are a bit WTF?

    • They played Woodstock. The song came out after, but I wonder how that might have gone over with that crowd.

    • I think you’re misinterpreting the song. The lyrics contain common late-60s examples of what would, today, be called “talking points.” If they express the band’s actual feelings, then the band would be self loathing, since they themselves were “freaks and hairies.”

      The rough modern equivalent might be a rap song that includes the lyrics “MAGA” or “Make America Great Again.” Doesn’t mean the rapper is pro-Trump, necessarily.

  2. Once heard that Oldman overplays his underplaying, if you get the drift. Might be a problem in his worse movies, but I agree that his performance in Tinker was tremendous. Haven’t seen this, don’t think I’ll rush out.

  3. Ben Mendelson is amazing (and terrifying) in Bloodline, but if you ever watch it, quit after season one. It goes as off the rails as any show ever has.

  4. So how would you rank the other nominees?

    I agree…Florida Project was robbed. But since it’s not included, I’m torn between the films in my top tier…Get Out, Lady Bird, and Shape of Water. Billboards was a disappointing mess. Still need to see Dunkirk and Call Me.

    • I just saw Phantom Thread today, so that’s 9/9. I’ll rank them all soon; my spreadsheet of 2017 movies I’ve seen has 31 in it, but there are still a couple more I’d love to get before the Oscars.

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