I OFTEN READ OTHER PEOPLE'S POSTINGS BEFORE WRITING MY OWN REVIEW, BUT THIS TIME I DECIDED TO GO AHEAD WITH MINE AND LOOK AT OTHERS' AFTER, TO SEE IF WE'RE IN SYNC
I needed a palate cleanser after so many good movies in a row, so I went to Darkest Hour today. (KIdding: it just fit my schedule best.)
From the first shot -- the overhead in the House of Commons -- I had the bad reminder that this was Joe Wright, the guy who perfectly fits Damien's favored phrase "Look at me, I'm directing". I thought Damien over-used the phrase, seeming to have issues with anyone who had a flamboyant style (like, say, del Toro in Shape of Water or Innaritu in Birdman). But Wright to me is the perfect case, because his attention-grabbing shots -- the Bennet sisters flying from room to room in Pride and Prejudice, the nurses marching like they're about to launch a Busby Berkeley number in Atonement -- never seem to have any connection to the content; they seem to exist to be doing SOMETHING DIFFERENT, without any thought why. (I'll except Anna Karenina from this overall critique; that at least seemed all of a piece, and may be his most interestingly conceived film.) Here in Darkest Hour we have multiple overhead views, a bunch of tracking shots, and weird closeups (like the human eye apparently meant to represent the dead at Calais), none of which serve any dramatic purpose; they seem to be there because Wright got bored with the story.
Not that the story deserves much better. This is an extremely simplistic view of the politics of the early months of the war, with strawman peaceniks offering lame, defeatist arguments before finally being crushed before the steamroller bluster of Churchill. Granted history's vindication of Churchill's approach would have made any opposition seem limp, but surely someone could have better articulated the possible advantages of anything beyond Go-Fight-Win -- something like diplomacy? (I had the weird feeling that Trump folk will watch this movie thinking Obama with his professorial ways is the Chamberlain/Halifax wing, and only the Trump/Churchillian bluster-and-bulldoze approach wins. They could probably use it to defend Trump's lunacy on Jerusalem.) And there's really not much else to watch in this over-familiar bit of history...very little wit beyond the opening scenes, and certainly no suspense, as we know the results of both the House speech and the Dunkirk evacuation.
All of this might have been just flat and uninspired, except, near the end, the screenwriter threw in what I'd label the most appallingly cloying scene I've sat through in a movie this year: that atrocity in the underground, where everyone -- it's unanimous -- tells Churchill exactly what he wants/needs to hear. (If any of you read Tom Friedman's columns in the NY Times, he always finds a cab driver wherever he goes to perform the same courtesy.) This scene, bad as it is, manages to hit a high-note of hackdom by having the sole black passenger -- bussed in from central casting, it appears -- not only say the most important things, but complete the lines of poetry Churchill is quoting. After this scene, I actively disliked the film.
Anyone talking about supporting nominations for this film is being ridiculous. Mendehslon has the best-by-default scene ("You have my support"), but he doesn't have remotely the heft of half a dozen other candidates. And Kristen Scott Thomas does her job capably, but doesn't have much of a role. As for the performance I'm supposed to want to see win best actor...I honestly have very little reaction to it. Oldman reads the speeches well, and he does the cantankerous thing smoothly enough. But I never had a moment when I thought I was seeing into the man's inner being -- something I had frequently during Lithgow's characterization of him in The Crown.
Come to think of it, nearly any random episode of The Crown was a more interesting and moving look into 20th century British history. I obviously can't pretend I had very high hopes for this film, but it actually managed to fall short of them.