Films sometimes come in clumps, with similarly themed works either the product of coincidental zeitgeist, cynical marketing move, an obvious anniversary or just the vagaries of production scheduling. It’s how we get to choose between such glorious cinema as Deep Impact vs Armageddon, and wonder how the apocalypse befell us twice in a short period (aesthetically speaking, that is).
So, some sixty-ish years after the facts we have in 2017 three films that tackle, either directly or indirectly, the actions of what many have claimed to be the greatest Briton of all time. In Churchill Jonathan Teplitzky finds Brian Cox presenting the leader as conflicted and of dark mood, gearing up for the Overlord operation with the gloom of Gallipoli and Dunkirk looming over him. It’s a film that does an excellent job at humanizing the leader, but it’s so dour that for many it may come across as churlish or insulting to his legacy.
Then there’s Christopher Nolan’s mighty Dunkirk, where the leader is spoken of with reverence while the events facing the infantry, those on sea and those in air collide in spectacular ways. This is an extremely effective yet equally simplistic view of the events, purposely narrowed down to craft highly individual moments and eschewing extraneous aspects that give greater context. This is not a slam, it’s actually what gives the film so much of its strength, but general audiences unfamiliar with history may be surprised to learn of the Calais slaughter, for example, that was taking place at the same time.
Which brings us to Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, Wright has made a career of handsome films that often veer off uncontrollably, with the likes of Hanna, Atonement, Anna Karenina and Pan all sharing some fantastic sequences that don’t always gel with what surrounds them. With this film he’s raised his game considerably, crafting a work whose substance finally seems as grandiose as his imagery.
This is thanks to the film’s greatest special effect, the superb, uncanny performance by Gary Oldman. It’s most fascinating to see how in one year two phenomenal leads in Cox and Oldman craft entirely different takes on a character so easily imitable. While Cox was withdrawn and introspective, Oldman is brash and boisterous, speaking to a person eager to end the beginning of the war, as it were, rather than wracked with the years toiling away at the defeat of Hitler.
It’s often fatuous to talk awards, especially so early, but this is exactly the kind of role that may finally merit Oldman an Oscar, as his take is so perfectly executed that it’s sometimes mindnumbing. There’s a brief moment where his left eye twitches in frustration that seems like the magic trick of a master, some sensationally subtle thespian trick for those that know they’re going to be projected on a giant screen. At other moments he exudes humanity, wit, anger and spite in such rapid fashion that one is left near delirious catching up, yet somehow it never feels broad or theatrical.
That said, it’s impossible in Wright’s film not to feel that the events showcased are nothing short of Shakespearean. This is the stuff of grand soliloquy, of pronouncements and posturings by bowtied men shouting at one another. If Dunkirk was the frontline view this is the land of generals and politicians, ensconced in their bunkers both literal and metaphysical, controlling battles from afar. It’s a top-level view, made literal by Wright's many overhead shots that prove extremely effective at giving a map-like view to the destruction below. If Darkest Hour is the stuff of the bard, then Dunkirk is more Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Churchill something by Normal Mailer, each in their own way finding truth in their telling.
Oldman is joined by a retinue of remarkable talent, beginning with Kristin Scott Thomas with a wonderful rendition of Clementine, Churchill’s sweet and formidable wife. Lily James plays a secretary that helps the audience situate ourselves into Winston’s world, and while the neophyte typist trope may be heavy handed it’s an effective device in this context. Stephen Dillane and Ronald Pickup play sympathetic versions of Lord Halifax and Neville Chamberlain respectively, making their pleas for peace not the stuff of cowardice but of pragmatism. Then there’s Ben Mendelsohn as a lispy King George, so entrenched in the role that it wasn’t until the credits that I could finally figure out who the hell was nailing this role (I should have known better, clearly). His effete regality is poured on like caramel sauce, yet there’s a provocative strength at play as well, and when reconciliation happens it’s one of the film’s most luscious moments of performance providing pure catharsis.
Darkest Hour is far more than some thematic sequel to The King’s Speech, but it may behoove to remind that Tom Hooper’s lesser film did take home best picture and director awards that year. Oldman is so titanic here without ever seeming like he’s fighting against the burden of history, crafting a remarkable screen character that may be his very best in a long line of impeccable performances. Wright’s showy crane shots (as shot by Jean-Pierre Jeunet collaborator Bruno Delbonnel who also captured the Coens’ Inside Lewyn Davis in glorious fashion) remind in a week of screening low-budget indies that sometimes the tools of glossy Hollywood when fully utilized can be genuinely breathtaking. The opening sequence alone in parliament is obnoxious and extraordinary, as provocative and multifaceted as the protagonist whose absence is marked by a bowler hat.
Sumptuously shot, carefully directed and with a lead performance for the ages, Darkest Hour beautifully caps this year of Churchillian cinema. It’s a superhero origin story, of sorts, all rise and fury as the country was mustered to begin the fight. The darkness would finally get light again, and by the time the events of Churchill and D-Day he’d be spent, and a few years later would be sent off, no longer the man of the hour. But here, with this film, he was the right pick at the right time, a person of erudition and hubris, of sensitivity and snark, a leader whose rhetoric could both obfuscate and inspire. The film does justice to this complicated greatness, and with Oldman at the head, this may well be a film for the ages.