In a very powerful opening shot, dropping us into the world of 1941 British Parliament, it’s clear that Joe Wright’s latest film will not only be a showcase for the work of actor Gary Oldman, but also a reminder of the great cinematography of Bruno Delbonnel, whose keen eye previously brought life to Inside Llewyn Davis and Amelie, among others.
Like in his previous films, Wright doesn’t miss any opportunity to let the camera do the storytelling and his collaboration with Delbonnel proves to be a great combination right from the get-go. This hopefully will be Roger Deakins’ (D.P. of Blade Runner 2049) year for gold, but I’m glad to see other great visual artists like Delbonnel in the foray. But I digress, this is not necessarily a movie that people will talk about in terms of cinematography. Let’s not forget why we’re here in the first place.
Darkest Hour is foremost a biography film of Winston Churchill, a leader who remains a political hero across all party lines. The film takes place in May of 1941, with World War II and a German invasion imminent. Through peculiar circumstances, one man is at the helm of the island-based empire. Unconventional casting pays off immensely; Gary Oldman, who in real life looks or sounds nothing like Churchill, is given one of the most earned scene-chewing roles in ages. The biography wisely focuses on a very critical period of his career and world history, and that helps the film itself remained focused.
Oldman is unrecognizable, it would take a more trained eye to tell what is makeup and what is weight gain. He completely disappears into Churchill as a fully formed character. It helps that he’s a bit of a caricature, especially compared to the more ordinary supporting characters, but there is never a doubt of who we are watching on screen. It goes without saying that this is the type of performance that awards season soaks up and I expect many awards to come Oldman’s way. Interestingly, Ben Mendelsohn plays King George VI, a role that has already been immortalized on film by Colin Firth, yet Mendelsohn takes the opportunity to make his mark in this role. British royalty and leadership are the Shakespearean characters of our time, worthy of numerous portrayals and character interpretations.
There is room for all these films and they will continue to be made, perhaps as a way of preserving history. It will simply require them to be increasingly well executed and fresh in order to stand apart.
An honest critique is that this story is increasingly familiar ground for movies. Yes, I learned details about Churchill that I wouldn’t have known otherwise and it’s clear that the writers did their homework, but I wonder how many movies about one particular subject are needed? Overlaps with The King’s Speech and Dunkirk are made plain to even the most casual viewer. I was also reminded of Downfall, a truly rapturous piece of cinema from Germany – both movies are complex looks at historic leaders in pivotal, intimate moments (in that film’s case, Adolf Hitler). The setting will feel very familiar, both films spend much of the time in bunker-style war rooms. Downfall will always be more captivating to me because the psychology behind a man whose villainous scheme is crumbling by the second has more intrigue than a hero on the correct side of history. There is room for all these films and they will continue to be made, perhaps as a way of preserving history. It will simply require them to be increasingly well executed and fresh in order to stand apart.
In today’s political climate, when American politicians are nearly all bought and sold by corporations, it’s unfortunately hard to imagine a time when solutions to the great problems were black and white, and great minds could disagree through discourse instead of stomping their feet. This is the great void between the many classic political films of yesteryear, which makes it hard to apply the lessons of leaders like Churchill by today’s standards. Regardless, there are lessons here we can apply to our daily lives. Never surrender in the face of adversity and reach out to the people around us for wisdom, even your opponents. These are the qualities that make Winston Churchill, and all those who portray him, live on in the generations to come as we face our own darkest hour.
Darkest Hour is rated PG-13 for some thematic material. 125 minutes. Opening at .. this Friday.