Jan 14, 2018

Review: DARKEST HOUR (dir. Wright)

'Here he comes, padding around in his dressing gown,  cheeks plump, jowls low, cigar stub jutting like an anti-aircraft gun, barking rewrites to his secretary  in between mouthfuls of scotch. Gary Oldman’s Churchill looks heavy — wadded in his fat suit and prosthetics — but he feels light, a sprightly soul, quick on his feet, quoting Macbeth and Hamlet —  “an actor, in love with the sound of his own voice”  in the words of one parliamentary foe. Nobody enjoyed playing Churchill like Churchill, it is implied.  So we get a performance within a performance, two for the price of one, Oldman playing Churchill playing himself — and such fun is had by all that you could almost forget there’s a war on. One of the revelations, in fact, of both Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour and the book on which it was based, by Anthony McCarten, is how close Britain came, in spring of 1940, to negotiating for peace,  even after Hitler had swept through mainland Europe. Newly installed as prime minister, Churchill is distrusted by most of his war cabinet, including Chamberlain and Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), who pressure him constantly to petition for peace. King George VI  (Ben Mendelsohn) finds Churchill’s belligerence “scary.” The French finds his talk of victory at any cost “delusional.” Churchill himself wears these arrows almost as badges of honor, happily copping to “wildness in the blood”. If ever a historical moment called for a little wildness, argues the film, it was the spring of 1940, when delusion and courage looked a lot alike. Maybe the country needed a little crazy. Centered on the five weeks between Churchill taking office as prime minister on May 9th until the evacuation of Dunkirk in June 4th, the film covers Churchill’s seemingly solo effort to shore up support in his government and rally the British people for the coming conflict.  How did he do it?  “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle,” in the film’s climactic line. Anthony McCarten’s script is essentially a run-through of the big speeches, starting with his battle anthem offering “blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”  Wright intercuts Oldman’s delivery with a conveyor-belt breakdown of the speech’s genesis, as it is typed up by secretary (Lily James), revised in the bath, with last-minute amendments scribbled  en route to the commons, where Wright slings his camera underneath the type-writer to see the keys as they hit, then hoists it up high in the rafters, looping and swooping, as if trying to match  Oldman for rhetorical bluster. Blood, toil, sweat, tears and a lot of fancy camera angles.  Oldman wins, with a bespoke version of his distinctive voodoo. The sight of Churchill scarfing down eggs, bacon and whiskey for breakfast is, in its own way, as rock n roll as the sight of Johnny Rotten windmilling his bass in Sid And Nancy, or count Dracula licking bloody razors in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Oldman likes his appetites, the stranger the better. Coming to the film from more expansive literary adaptations like Atonement, Pride and Prejudice, and Anna Karenina, Wright directs as as if hellbent on refuting the“nice performance, shame about the film” criticism usually thrown at biopics. We get slow motion, swish pans, extreme close-ups, elaborate tracking shots, spiraling booms, and endless aerial shots, the camera yo-yoing up and down through the clouds following the course of the bombs as they fall. His performance is almost as busy as Oldman’s — the directorial equivalent of selfie — and it robs the film of gravity, quite literally, or any sense of impending threat.' — from my Sunday Times review https://www.thetimes.co.uk/?sunday

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