Darkest Hour

Cast: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ronald Pickup, Ben Mendelsohn

Director: Joe Wright

Writer: Anthony McCarten


It’s interesting that Darkest Hour ended up coming out the same year as Dunkirk. Both films take place at exactly the same time and are more or less centred on the exact same event, the defeat and evacuation of the British army in Nazi-occupied France, but both from very different perspectives. Dunkirk takes us right into the action in the most astoundingly visceral way and is so focused on the emotions of the soldiers in that moment that it says practically nothing about the larger historical context. Darkest Hour reveals some of that context, detailing the crisis in leadership that emerged in the wake of what looked like imminent defeat and the dire mood that dominated Parliament. Unlike Nolan’s quasi-silent epic, this story is told not in images but in dialogue as it directly engages with the larger meaning of the events that unfolded which in Dunkirk had been simply implied. The way that these two films inform each other is fascinating and, the more I think about the sensational, intense experience of watching Dunkirk, the less impressive I find Darkest Hour to be.

It is 1940 and Great Britain is at war with Germany. The disgraced Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) has resigned as Prime Minister for his failure to contend with Hitler’s ambition and a new Tory leader must be found who will have the support of both the people and the opposition party. Chamberlain’s preferred successor Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) rejects the offer and so Parliament turns to Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman), a divisive figure with a poor war record but the only man who understood the threat Hitler posed from the start. Thus King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), despite his personal dislike of the man, invites Churchill to form a war government. Churchill gets to work immediately, forming a war cabinet that includes Halifax, Chamberlain, and the “sheep in sheep’s clothing” Anthony Eden (Samuel West) and making clear that he has no intention whatsoever of negotiating peace terms with Germany. As the situation in France worsens and the party’s confidence in their leader decreases, Churchill feels more and more the weight of history on his shoulders.

In the role that will almost certainly win him an Oscar, Oldman delivers a fine performance indeed. Working through make-up and prosthetics, Oldman is as forceful and expressive as he’s ever been and is able to build a compelling portrait of the man. Before becoming Prime Minister, Churchill was a contentious figure, disliked by many for his controversial opinions, uncouth humour, and bad judgement, particularly with Gallipoli and India. The man may very well never have won the support to become Prime Minister had he not happened to be absolutely right about Hitler at this crucial time. Oldman thus embraces the ‘100 Greatest Britons’ poll winner’s boorish, impetuous side and brings much humanity to an unrefined figure who effectively lucked into the highest office in government and suddenly held the fate of the British Empire in his hands. The weight of the responsibility is never lost on him, but there is a question of whether Churchill’s decision to fight on to the bitter end is truly in the people’s best interest or if he’s allowing his passions and prejudices to drive Britain into ruin. Oldman displays all the strength, wit, and vulnerabilities of Churchill’s character and is more than worthy of the acclaim he has received.

Sadly the rest of the film isn’t as strong. Wright is able to convey a definite sense of urgency and immediacy to the few days where Britain’s fate hung delicately in the balance, but not in a way that felt truthful to me. The film is historical fiction, so naturally liberties have to be taken in the interest of creating an engaging, efficient drama. Accuracy is therefore all but irrelevant, what really matters is truthfulness; the events don’t have to perfectly match what actually happened as long as we believe in what it shows us instead. Darkest Hour didn’t work for me in this regard because the story often felt contrived to me. Through stilted, on-the-nose dialogue and certain scenes that felt theatrical in their arrangement and performance, I never honestly believed that I was there the way I did with Dunkirk. Even allowing for the fact that Darkest Hour was not made with the intention of being as cinematically overwhelming as the Nolan film, the film just felt too much like a reproduction to me than it did a story. The one scene where this is most apparent is when Churchill takes a ride on the London Underground and talks to some of the people, a preposterous scene that feels as cheap as it feels fake.

It is a competently told story at any rate. There are enough decent performances to support Oldman in his tour-de-force from Kristin Scott Thomas as Churchill’s supportive wife Clemmie, to Dillane as the calculating Halifax whose pragmatism serves as a foil to Churchill’s idealism, to Lily James as the determined, doe-eyed secretary. The film also does a pretty good job of highlighting what exactly it was that made Churchill not just a great leader but also the right leader for Britain at this time. His greatest asset as Prime Minister was not his intelligence, strength, or authority, it was his charisma and the film places a strong emphasis on the critical role his rhetoric played in building the morale of the British people. While I don’t think the way the film did this always worked (e.g. in that Underground scene), it was fine when it did. There is also a convincing sense of sincerity to the character, in large part due to Oldman’s acting. The seriousness with which he treats his task and the passion with which he delivers his speeches convinces you that this is a man who will absolutely give his “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” to see Britain through this dark hour. Dunkirk this film is not, but Darkest Hour is fine for what it is.

★★★

Advertisements

Pan

Cast: Levi Miller, Hugh Jackman, Garrett Hedlund, Rooney Mara, Amanda Seyfried

Director: Joe Wright

Writer: Jason Fuchs


Whenever a film attempts to create a sequel/prequel/reboot of a franchise I know and love I tend to be pretty ambivalent about it. While I’m open to the prospect of someone bringing a new spin to an old story and old characters, I’m always afraid they’ll tarnish them in some way. As I’ve grown up I have come to accept that liberties are always going to be taken with the mythology of a story in order for it to be modernised and updated. Sometimes it works well (Star Trek, Mad Max: Fury Road) and sometimes it doesn’t (Planet of the Apes, Terminator Genisys). There are however some things so sacred and so inviolate that you simply don’t mess with them. The Force in Star Wars is a mystical, intangible energy field, not the product of microscopic life forms in the blood stream. Wonderland is a world that defies all forms of rationality and sense, not a realm of prophecies and civil wars. The Batsuit does not have fucking nipples. By failing to follow the pre-established rules and traditions of these franchises, these sequels/prequels/reboots effectively betray the stories that the originals were trying to tell. Pan tells the story of a boy called Peter that takes place in a world called Neverland, but very little of it resembles the universe or the story of J. M. Barrie’s novels.

This incarnation of Peter (Levi Miller) is an orphan boy living in London during the Second World War. He lives in a world of oppression, injustice and fear until one fateful night when he is kidnapped by pirates on a flying ship. The ship sets course to Neverland where Peter is subjected under the rule of the pirate king Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman) and is forced to mine for fairy dust. After an encounter with Blackbeard that leads to the discovery of Peter’s ability to fly, Peter escapes the pirates with the help of fellow miner James Hook (Garrett Hedlund). During his escape Peter learns of a prophecy that could lead to the truth about himself and his parents, a truth he seeks to uncover with the aid of Hook and the warrior princess Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara).

I don’t want to turn this review into an essay on what liberties this film took with the Peter Pan lore and why they don’t work because I think to do so might be to miss the point. There is certainly more than one way to tell a single story and not all the deviancies to the original source material are necessarily going to be bad just because they’re different. However, as I said earlier, there are some things you simply don’t mess with. The story of Peter Pan is first and foremost a story about growing up, Peter himself is a mischievous, cocky troublemaker and Neverland is a world of imagination and adventure. Barrie’s universe is and always has been open to variation and interpretation but the core ingredients have to be there if his story is to be conveyed. In Pan however the theme of growing up is not at all featured and Peter is a timid, whiny messiah who now has some great destiny that he must fulfil. I do think that Neverland itself is quite well done (with some grossly egregious missteps here and there) but it isn’t nearly enough to excuse the severe lack of regard held towards J. M. Barrie’s work. What aggravates me about this film is not only that it tried to change something that was already fun and wonderful to begin with but that what it offers instead is so weak and insipid in comparison.

Thus Pan is not only a bad film because it betrays the spirit of Barrie’s work, it’s also a bad film because it’s a bad film. The protagonist is about as bland and forgettable as a protagonist can get. The whole idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy foretelling Peter’s great destiny is the same cheap narrative trick we’ve seen in a hundred other films. The rules and laws of this universe are not adequately established or explained, leading to much confusion and many unanswered questions. And then some things are just plain silly. Between watching a dogfight between a flying pirate ship and WW2 fighter jets, seeing hundreds of pirates singing ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and witnessing a trampoline fight between Hook and a native, there were many instances when I had to stop and ask myself what the bloody hell I was watching. The forced inside jokes and winks to the audience (“We’ll always be friends Hook”) were also so obnoxious and in your face that I felt like I was watching Bojack Horseman’s stand up routine (“Get it? Do you get it? Do you understand the joke?”).

As frustrating as I found this film to watch there were some pleasantries I quite enjoyed. Neverland for one looks pretty stunning, with the exception of those monstrous CGI birds (you’ll know them when you see them). The setting is rich in colour and texture and many of the visuals are quite imaginative. Some aspects like the giant bubbles surrounding Neverland or the puffs of colourful smoke emitted by the pirates’ pistols may not be part of Barrie’s lore but I still thought they looked nice. Again some licence with the material is permissible when it comes to visually representing them and I thought Pan did an adequate job of illustrating Neverland as a world of imagination and wonder. I also liked the music composed by John Powell of How to Train Your Dragon. At the end of the day though the visuals and music cannot save this film from its shortcomings in story, character and sensation any more than it could with the Star Wars prequels.

Perhaps the most common defence for this film is that it was made for children and therefore doesn’t have to meet the standards of films made for grown ups, an argument that simply doesn’t hold water. Making a film for children is not a licence to be stupid, undistinguished or lazy. Bright colours and movement might be enough to keep younger children amused for a couple of hours but it isn’t enough for a film like this to stand the test of time. Children are smarter than some adults give them credit for and if a film actually offers something of substance they will respond to it. Disney’s Peter Pan as well as Barrie’s original novels have lasted because they both have timeless characters, incredible imagination, a compelling story and a profound moral for children to take away. Pan offers none of these things. In this day and age where studios like Pixar are able to produce wildly successful films that can challenge and entertain children and adults alike, Pan offers nothing of worth to its audience and will be forgotten once they’ve moved on to whatever comes next.