Film · Review

Darkest Hour Review – 21st century greasepaint

Get this right, Gary Oldman ain’t actually a really fat dude, but in this film right here he is. Mind blowing right? That someone can just do that and make it a film. He’s not fat in real life. Wow. I’m being sarcastic, and it’s not entirely fair to Oldman but in general I don’t like these sorts of performances. The sort that play up the actor’s transformation, especially into some recent historical figure who we have video footage of to prove that the job is being done right.

They usually just feel so self-serving, some studied mannerisms and a general air of trying very, very hard because this sorta thing plays well to the Awards crowd. Lo and behold, the nominations are falling into his lap. It’s not a bad performance, not at all, it’s Gary fucking Oldman I don’t think he’s capable of giving one. It just feels very expected, a rotten thing to ding somebody for but honestly I’d have preferred to see him doing just about anything else.

For what it’s worth, the strength of his performance carries the film. It feels a slight thing otherwise, mapping the time between the man’s ascension to the position of Prime Minister to the delivery of his famous ‘fight them on the beaches’ speech. We see him fight the side of his party searching for peace with Germany as European troops face slaughter at Dunkirk. We see him form unlikely relationships with the King of England and his secretary. He spends time with his wife.

It’s a lighthearted look at this time, part heist movie as Churchill manipulates the players in order to win the support of the entire UK government. Part comedy as the dude’s irascible manner grates against all his contemporaries. Directed by Joe Wright with a fast pop-sensibility that surges the characters from one scene to the next. Sometimes it feels lively and daring, sometimes like he’s got a huge budget and is trying to find the next surprise to will justify it.

Got that Delbonnel flair

He’s ably assisted in this task by the legendary Bruno Delbonnel who will probably get a whole ‘nother slate of cinematography nominations for this joint. The thing looks proper gorgeous with the combination of Sarah Greenwood’s lavish production design and that high contrast, diffuse look that Delbonnel creates so effortlessly. They’re able to make a collection of grey suited men in a dingy basement seem like the Danny Ocean gang. There’s one moment almost beyond compare when Churchill enters a room and the camera pans to a perfectly composed shot of middle aged men lounging like they’re in some boyband photoshoot.

I joke, but the film so pretty. He’s a pretty Churchill in a pretty Britain, going about his day and making sure that the war is jolly well won. I’m not sure I’m here for that. Take the ongoing running jokes regarding the man’s functional alcoholism and constant smoking. There’s like stories from set that Oldman started getting ill from the amount of expensive cigars they were making him chomp through daily. Sure, I’m a fair amount of jealous at the guy, I’m absolutely useless on drugs, got no chill, wish I could.

But the film don’t comment on none of it, aside from ‘ha ha, quirky.’ I dislike the hagiographies we write of Churchill, they seem rooted in this antiquarian view of the world. He’s a national hero, and nowhere near as bad as the slavers of American political mythology, but his misogyny, imperialism and anti-labour sentiments are so often forgotten when discussing the man.

The refraction feels so classical here

It’s by the time we get to a pivotal scene in which the man decides that he needs to get back in touch with the common man, and so hops out his chauffeured ride to make his journey on the tube, that any pretence of reality has fled. The scene is so cartoonish, a poorly drawn sketch that has been recreated for us with astounding artistry. That’s the vision it wants us to see, the man who was always there, always on the mark, always prepared with a witty rejoinder or wry remark. The man who could move from the King’s table to the commons to the commoners with ease.

I just don’t think that’s a helpful read on the man. Especially given what the past two shitty years have been like in this country. Life is hell now for a lot of people here. I’m struggling to cope, and we’re continuing to bury the stories of our best. Why do we have to exalt this man again? What good will it do any of us?

Churchill could drink his way through the day and be fine. I try to be buoyed by the strength of compassion and understanding but that feels harder than getting pissed. I’m tired of praising Churchill for the tenacity of his existence. Can we please find the world a kinder place instead?

Darkest Hour is currently screening in UK cinemas.

I guess complaining about the white men is redundant
Images courtesy of Universal Pictures

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