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Oscar Quest 2018: “Darkest Hour”

Darkest Hour!

An incensed Winston Churchill contemplating which pasty coward to break in half over his knee first.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

This time of year is my annual Oscar Quest, during which I venture out to see all Academy Award nominees for Best Picture, regardless of whether I think I’ll like them or not, whether their politics and beliefs agree with mine or not, whether they’re good or bad for me, and whether or not my friends and family have ever heard of them. I’ve seen every Best Picture nominee from 1997 to the present. As of February 21st I’ve officially seen all nine of this year’s Best Picture nominees. I’m not sure I’ll be able to cover all of them in full before the Oscars telecast on March 4th, but let’s see how far I can get before I burn out.

Onward to nominee #5, Darkest Hour, the second and more old-fashioned of the two World War II entrants into the race as brought to us by director Joe Wright (Atonement, Hanna). The short version of this entry: my wife Anne, lifelong WWII buff, found this much more engrossing than Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Your Mileage May Vary.

Short version for the unfamiliar: Gary Oldman in an astoundingly detailed and increasingly convincing fat suit IS Winston Churchill, new Prime Minister of England in the spring of 1940, when his peers in Parliament were humbled by Europe’s recent multiple downfalls and staunchly in favor taking the appeasement route with up-‘n’-coming world conqueror Adolf Hitler.

When the desperate situation from Dunkirk comes to the fore, Churchill has to contend not only with the Nazi madman about to turn his cannons in England’s direction, but with the politicians standing right beside and behind him with their knives sharpened and their finest quitter suits on, most of them convinced he’s about to make a bad call and get them all killed. See the yelling, the tension, the failed negotiations, the good-ol’-boys’ cliquish networking, and the impressive feat of 21st-century fat-suit realism as Our Hero is backed into a political corner and forced to save the day with one last remaining weapon in his arsenal: one of the most famous call-to-arms speeches in history.

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Lily James (Downton Abbey, Baby Driver) is Churchill’s new secretary, the audience’s entry-point character into 1940 Britain and, after a time, Churchill’s entry point into the mindset of its ordinary citizens. Academy Award Nominee Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient) is Churchill’s Concerned Wife™.

Ronald Pickup (the voice of Aslan from the BBC’s Narnia adaptations circa 1988-1990) is previous Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who keeps hanging around his old workplace and acting like a jerk. Stephen Dillane (The Hours, John Adams) is Viscount Halifax, who could’ve had the PM job but decided he wanted to watch Churchill squirm for a while first. The chaotic, panicky chambers of Parliament are The Muppet Show and this duo is Statler and Waldorf.

As my favorite non-Oldman character, Rogue One‘s Ben Mendelsohn is King George VI, picking up the relay baton from Colin Firth nearly a full year after the events of The King’s Speech. Mendelsohn’s stuttering is more controlled after continued therapy and practice, but slips through in an occasional subtle syllable, easy to miss if you’re not listening for it.

In one scene, special guest David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck.) is the voice of American President Franklin D. Roosevelt making an unhelpful phone call, his hands tied by his own snugly isolationist countrymen.

Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? It’s two hours of Gary Oldman in a carefully crafted fat suit arguing with naysayers, haters, scaredy-cats, and other meek statesmen over whether or not Hitler would respond to polite diplomacy, accept forms of compromise, act like a reasonable man, and be a good neighbor with the new properties now under his burgeoning European monopoly. Many among the upper crust believe such talks will end in amicable détente and not in England’s severe battering and humiliating surrender.

Churchill, for one, does not welcome their new supremacist overlords. Not all belief systems or oppressive ruling structures are compatible with the idealist’s quixotic dream of worldwide idyllic coexistence, the lazy man’s misguided assumption that all problems will go away and solve themselves if you just ignore them instead of confronting them, or the coward’s fevered wish that other countries’ problems won’t become their problems as long as they can still hide behind their own borders.

Nitpicking? If, for your own reasons, you refuse to buy into the idea of two hours of Gary Oldman in a surprisingly flexible and intimidating fat suit, speaking softly at first and then gradually working his way up to full-throttle bellowing, capped off with emotionally charged speech-making, you’re in for a rough time. There’s not much more to the film than that. With some minor rewrites and a stage constructed of sufficiently complicated pieces, Darkest Hour wouldn’t be difficult to reimagine for live theater.

Apparently a handful of developments and plot conveniences are somewhat fictional, but they weren’t drastic enough to distract from the general timeline or the Moral of the Story.

So what’s to like? Gary Oldman yelling is almost always a manly delight even in the corniest of roles — cf. True Romance, The Fifth Element, The Professional, Air Force One, The Book of Eli, and more, more, more. But even when it’s Gary Oldman in one of the All-Time Top 5 Fat Suits in Cinema History, it’s no less show-stopping and earth-shaking. Nor does the eloquence and effectiveness of the very verbiage of that “We shall storm the beaches” exhortation climax suffer one bit from the makeup team’s grand efforts. Maybe the scene is a tad on the hammy side, but classic inspirational speeches are a rare currency in today’s cinema. Sometimes it’s nice to get caught up in the fervor of a clarion call to sign up for the War on Evil.

In between scenes of the new fat-suit exemplar, Joe Wright and his teams fill out the world of 1940s England where they can for ambiance and context, from the anxious city streets to the recreation of the King’s meeting room much as it’s appeared in other films in all its royal extravagance and vaulted ceilings. The score by Dario Marianelli suits the era and stokes the fires of British pride. And when the camera remembers there’re ladies present, both Lily James and Kristin Scott Thomas step up to balance out the excess machismo and in their own ways help sort through Our Hero’s unenviable burdens during his weaker, tireder moments. Some of it can feel a bit claustrophobic because two solid hours of backroom shouting matches can get monotonous and take a toll, but those little touches help.

In terms of British entry into WWII, Darkest Hour fits neatly as the middle chapter of a trilogy between The King’s Speech and Nolan’s Dunkirk. If you’d rather save some time on your complete-trilogy viewing marathon, set Nolan’s patriotic editing experiment aside for a bit, instead pop in Wright’s own Atonement, and skip to his more succinct, deeply haunting tracking-shot montage of the beaches at Dunkirk. Then switch back to Nolan’s own, but selectively fast-forward to all of Tom Hardy’s dogfight scenes.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Darkest Hour end credits, but the absence of any mention of the Dunkirk Little Boats means that Nolan’s sweeping recreation of the Miracle at Dunkirk is more authentic than the meager seconds’ worth shown here. On that particular creative front, Nolan has the advantage.

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