“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” – Winston Churchill, speech given to the House of Commons, June 4th, 1940.
Great speech, huh? One of the best the world has ever heard. While you may assume you know about Winston Churchill, the prime minister of England during WWII, the man who guided the country through its “darkest hours,” Director Joe Wright and actor Gary Oldman want to take you through the first month of his term and try to reveal more about the man.
When I review a movie, I try to either put aside or state my personal preferences. There is no true objectivity in art, and so I try to judge both the technical achievement of a film and the thematic.
So, before I give my verdict on Darkest Hour, I should say that I have seen two other WWII films this year in Dunkirk and Their Finest. And within the last six months I have watched multiple WWI and WWII films (Empire of the Sun, The Wind Rises, Saving Private Ryan, Joyeux Noel, Lawrence of Arabia, Wonder Woman, Sophie’s Choice) and frankly, I’m just tuckered out. Also, British period dramas are not my cup of tea. Sorry. I can appreciate them, but there are only so many I can take. I would not make a good Academy member.
So Darkest Hour to me felt much longer than two hours. I was alert and engaged, but I was also not opposed to an abrupt exit.
Part of the reason is that I think films, to some degree, need to validate why they are films. If you are going to ask someone to pay money to see your film in a theater, there needs to be a compelling reason why. Darkest Hour is a lead-up to one of the most famous speeches in the world. That’s great, but besides “come see Gary Oldman’s great performance,” there isn’t anything here that I either haven’t experienced before, seen before, or could not have found out from a Wikipedia skim.
Moreso, 2017 has been a year characterized by out-of-the-box filmmaking. There have been the Justice Leagues and The Circle’s of course, but there have also been the Get Outs, Wonder Womans, Okjas and Logans and Lady Birds. Films that, even if they are not technically perfect, are ambitious and different. Films that spotlight new voices and talent.
Darkest Hours is classical. That’s not at all a bad thing. It is top-quality filmmaking. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie, Inside Llewyn Davis) makes each frame of the film mean something. Whether it is framing Churchill alone in a claustrophobic space as he tries to make a decision, or showing the ‘God’s eye view’ of the battlefield, nothing is wasted or unintentional. The script is tight. The score is haunting. All of the actors do a fine job, with Gary Oldman completely disappearing into his role. His makeup and prosthetics aren’t obvious or distracting. The entire film ticks like an intricate machine, and hits every beat.
I think, though, what makes filmmaking such a powerful medium, what keeps it culturally relevant, are the messy films that have something to say and push our expectations. My tastes are leaning towards those films, and they stay with me longer.
If you want to see a fantastic lead performance, and if you love history and admire perfect filmmaking, see Darkest Hour. Appreciate it. But I don’t think that if you miss it, you’ll be missing out on one of the best films of the year.