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.

★★★

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Baby Driver

Cast: Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Eiza González, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Jon Bernthal

Director: Edgar Wright

Writer: Edgar Wright


Before working on this film Edgar Wright famously walked away from the production of Ant-Man over creative differences, stating that the studio would not allow him to make the movie he wanted to make. That experience must have had a profound effect on him because with Baby Driver what Edgar Wright has delivered is a movie that only he could have made. As with Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Baby Driver is a movie that is positively bursting with life and energy. There is always something happening on screen and it is always something interesting, creative and entertaining. There is also a clash in genre that is similarly typical of the director’s work as this movie brings together the adrenaline-fuelled car-chase thrillers of the 60s and 70s with the romantic musicals of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. Wright has distinguished himself before with his enormously funny and inventive films, but Baby Driver feels like more of a passion project than any other movie he’s made, making it his most personal work to date.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a getaway driver in Atlanta, working off a debt he owes to the fearsome criminal mastermind Doc (Kevin Spacey). As a child Baby and his family were caught in a car crash that killed his parents and left him with an eternal ringing sound in his ears. He blocks this sound out with music, keeping a sizeable library stored on his iPods, and now choreographs his daily routines, including his getaway driving, around the songs he listens to. After his latest job he stops by a diner and there meets the waitress Debora (Lily James), whom he starts dating. After his next job goes awry Baby is ready to get out of the game, but Doc isn’t ready to let him go even after their debt is squared away. Instead Doc blackmails him into working on another heist, teaming him up with the psychopathic Bats (Jamie Foxx) and the happy-go-lucky couple Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza González). Stuck in this predicament where there are no happy outcomes, Baby has to decide what kind of man he wants to be and what he must do to save Debora and himself.

Baby Driver isn’t a musical in the sense that it has characters bursting into song and partaking in elaborate dance routines, but it has the mood, sensibility and logic of a musical. Baby chooses his music to reflect his state of mind and whether he’s losing the police to the tune of ‘Bellbottoms’ by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in a car that dances in its own way or skipping along to ‘Harlem Shuffle’ by Bob & Earl on his way to pick up some coffee, there is such seamless synchronicity to his movements. Wright shoots these scenes as if everything surrounding Baby were in perfect harmony with him, matching the tone and tempo of the song, lining Baby up with visual cues and even placing lyrics in the background. This synchronisation is vital to Baby’s process and when he loses it, that’s how we know things have gone badly. When Baby abruptly halts and delays a job in order to sync up with The Damned’s ‘Neat, Neat, Neat’, it’s a hint of the dark turn that the job is going to take.

The story isn’t as interesting as the execution, but then that tends to be the case with action films. Take some good characters and put them in the hands of a great director and you can make the plot almost irrelevant (just look at Mad Max: Fury Road). Baby himself however wasn’t as interesting as I would’ve liked and I cannot help feel that he was miscast. Elgort gives it a good try and he’s certainly baby-faced enough for the role, but he just didn’t have the charisma to pull it off. I think the role would have been better served by more of a Steve McQueen/Burt Reynolds type. Still the movie had some great side characters to pick up the slack, especially in Foxx’s Bats and Hamm’s Buddy. Foxx brings a volatile sadism to his role not unlike Joe Pesci’s in Goodfellas and every scene he’s in is rife with tension as we wait to see what will or won’t set him off. Hamm (and González for that matter) are both great as the criminal couple who are as dangerous as they are passionate.

The superb soundtrack, the inspired choreography, and Wright’s keen instinct for visual storytelling all make for a movie that’s as imaginative, as stimulating and as enjoyable as La La Land. There are some weaknesses like the lead and the rather bland romance that never quite hits the wild fairy tale love story of True Romance that it was going for, but compared to the sensationalist experience of watching this film I’m willing to dismiss those complaints as nit-picks. Who cares about that kind of stuff when you’re enjoying an adrenaline-pumping finale to the tune of ‘Brighton Rock’ by Queen? This is a Hollywood blockbuster that doesn’t get made any more, not based on any popular property nor part of any franchise. It pays homage to the dozens of movies that inspired it, but it is also modern and self-aware enough that it doesn’t feel in any way outdated. It is a movie of its time and of times gone by, a balance that not many movies can hit. Edgar Wright put his heart and soul into this film and it was a pleasure to watch from beginning to end.

★★★★★

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Cast: Lily James, Sam Riley, Jack Huston, Bella Heathcote, Douglas Booth, Matt Smith, Charles Dance, Lena Headey

Director: Burr Steers

Writer: Burr Steers


The film’s gimmick is a simple one. It’s Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice… with zombies. Such a bizarre, outwardly and clearly comical idea requires a clash in tones in order to work. On the one hand the film needs to capture the spirit of Austen’s tale of love, marriage and manners through its setting, characters, plot and use of language. On the other there needs to be a clear satirical element at play where the zombies can be employed for comic effect. It is often the case however that the film instead tries to amplify the action and gore to provide its audience with thrills and tension. While this isn’t necessarily a bad way to go about making this film, the clash does not end up working. Steers seems unsure about how far he ought to take the comedy, action and romance and ends up botching the balance between all three. It is a film that jumps erratically between parody and thriller and I found that the more seriously it tried to take itself, the more my interest waned.

In 19th century England the country has been overrun by zombies and so the practice of combatting them has been ingrained into the culture. Mr. Bennett (Charles Dance) has therefore seen to it that his five daughters have all been trained in the arts of civility, manners and zombie slaying. The Bennett sisters, Elizabeth (Lily James), Jane (Bella Heathcote), Kitty (Suki Waterhouse), Lydia (Ellie Bamber) and Mary (Millie Brady), must face the pressures of marriage and scandal whilst also dispatching of the living dead. While Jane finds an ideal suitor in the form of the dashing Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth), Elizabeth is uninterested in the very idea of marriage. Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley), an equally adept zombie slayer, is also opposed to the idea of marriage but finds himself reluctantly smitten with Elizabeth upon witnessing her performance in battle. As Elizabeth and Darcy confront their feelings towards each other they discover that England might be in greater danger than they feared.

For me the most enjoyable parts of the film were the more comedic bits. I liked the idea of how marriage proposals and costume balls were still considered important in a world ravaged by apocalypse, I liked how the Bennett sisters would prepare for such occasions by concealing knives in their stockings and garters and I liked how over the top such characters as Lena Headey’s Lady Catherine de Bourgh were. There are however too many instances where the film, in spite of its absurd premise, tries to be taken seriously. Instead of satirising Elizabeth and Darcy’s relationship, it tries to convey a genuine romantic bond between them. Instead of utilising the zombies for laughs, it tries to make them intimidating and the combat scenes exciting. A more skilful and clever method might have enabled this approach to work, but it instead comes across as weak. The attempts at creating tension rely more on jump scares than on atmosphere, the combat scenes are shot nonsensically and the character interactions lack substance.

This film is absolutely packed with strong actors who deliver far more than the material warranted. Lily James in particular brings incredible energy to the role of Elizabeth and, between this film, Cinderella, Downton Abbey and War and Peace, looks set to be the new ‘it girl’ of costume dramas. Her performance shows a better blend of comedy and drama than most of her co-stars. Riley, for instance, has made a stronger attempt to play his character for laughs, emphasising Darcy’s stiffness and dourness. Simply put his performance works for the funny parts of the film but not the dramatic parts. The funniest performance by far is provided by Matt Smith as the hapless Parson Collins. The rest of the cast members do what they can but can only bring so much to their roles without a clear idea of the tone or direction required.

I would have liked to simply sit back and enjoy a fun comedy about zombies in Victorian England bringing death and destruction to a world of class, etiquette and romance. Unfortunately when a film such as this tries to take itself seriously, I must in turn take it seriously as a response. As a romance this film is flat in spite of the strong performance provided by James. As a thriller it is messy and unexciting. As a comedy it kind of works, but only in brief intervals. It seems to me that Steers didn’t know how to approach this material, perhaps because he didn’t know which audience to aim for. Those watching the film for the zombies are going to expect blood, gore and violence in spades. Those looking for a satirical take on Austen will be more interested in the humour and social mores. The failure to execute a balance between the two will likely leave both parties unsatisfied. This film will have its fans I’m sure, but it won’t find an audience or a following.

★★

Cinderella

Cast: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Stellan Skarsgård, Holliday Grainger, Derek Jacobi, Ben Chaplin, Sophie McShera, Hayley Atwell, Helena Bonham Carter

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Writer: Chris Weitz


Live-action Disney remakes seem to be on the rise now with the confirmation that such films as Beauty and the Beast, Dumbo and Mulan are about to get their own. While I’m not against the idea of updating these classic films per se, I do think that that the execution has for the most part been underwhelming. This has mostly been due to either the filmmakers changing what doesn’t need to be changed or not understanding what made the original a classic in the first place. I don’t think Alice in Wonderland worked because it tried to introduce logic and reason to a world that is supposed to defy those conventions and I don’t think Maleficent worked because it tried to change the one part of the film that I didn’t think needed to be changed at all, its villain. Therefore I wasn’t really expecting much from the Cinderella remake.

Cinderella is, of course, the classic story of a young girl who is forced into servitude by her evil stepmother but who is then given the chance to go to the ball and meet the prince after being visited by her fairy godmother. The updated version offers an account of Ella’s exceedingly happy childhood which is cut short by her mother’s tragic death, during which she imparts onto Ella her greatest lesson: “have courage and always be kind”. Ella (Lily James) takes this lesson to heart as she never allows her sunny disposition to ever be diminished, not even by her new, unwelcoming stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and stepsisters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera). When her father passes away Ella is gradually revoked of her status as a daughter and instead becomes a servant to the household. As life gets harder for her Ella maintains her sunny disposition and never forgets the words that her mother spoke to her.

In Disney’s attempt to update this story there is a lot that works better than the original but also a lot that does not. Perhaps the biggest downgrade from the original film is Cinderella’s character who, rather than a determined, strong-willed girl trying to make the best of the life she has been given, is reduced to an irrationally cheerful dreamer who greets adversity with apathy rather than resolve. Her struggle becomes less believable and less compelling because, at the risk of sounding heartless, she doesn’t really suffer enough. The first ten minutes of the film, which I found to be a cringingly schmaltzy ordeal, show Ella and her parents living this excessively joyful life in which everything is sunshine and rainbows, a temperament that Ella maintains for the remainder of the film. Therefore her attitude towards any hardship that she encounters is to greet it with a smile and to hope for something better, an attitude that I felt diminished the oppressive nature of the life she had been subjected to. As opposed to the original character, who suffered a great deal at the hands of her wicked stepmother and in turn became all the more determined not to be dispirited or defeated, this Cinderella never seems to suffer all that much due to the excessive complacency she exhibits and her inability to feel any sort of pain or sorrow.

Another character who I felt was a step down from her original counterpart is the stepmother. Although the film does give her a few deliciously evil moments (and Cate Blanchett relishes every second of them) they are far too little. The film attempts to add a bit of depth and complexity to her character by providing her with a backstory and a motivation behind her actions, but the personality is a sheer downgrade. This stepmother is not nearly as threatening or as menacing as the original character nor as enjoyably evil. I found this villain to be far too silly and camp to be at all intimidating and not in an entertaining way.

With all that in mind, there were plenty of things about this film that I did like. One character who is a vast improvement over his original counterpart is the prince (Richard Madden) who in this film has an actual personality. This time around he and Cinderella actually meet beforehand and are able to form a bond with one another. Additionally his story-arc about succeeding his father (Derek Jacobi) as the king and being pressured by him and by the Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgård) into marriage is actually quite a compelling one. Cinderella is also a gorgeous film to look at with its stunning sets, magnificent costumes and enchanting visual effects. Helena Bonham Carter provides a breath of fresh air in her quirky cameo as the Fairy Godmother.

What really bothered me about this film was Cinderella’s character and the way she affected the story. The incessant chirpiness that she maintains in light of the adversity and oppression she undergoes negates any sense of suffering and so I was less invested in her struggle. Her hardships do not seem at all tragic because she refuses to acknowledge them as such. Rather than try to make the most of her difficulties, she instead accepts them as they are and smiles as she bears them. Such an attitude is much too naïve and foolish for the smart, independent character that she is clearly supposed to be and betrays what the original film stood for. When Cinderella finally gets her reward at the end, it doesn’t really feel like she’s earned it. All of this is supposed to hammer in the film’s moral about having courage and being kind, a moral that gets repeated often but that is never actually taught (or at least isn’t taught very well). I did not hate this film, far from it, but I do think it is a failure as an upgrade to the original tale. What it attempts to add in reason and logic it loses in character and emotion.

★★★

[On a side note: The film opened with a showing of Frozen Fever which I liked a great deal. It was fun and enjoyable and the perfect way to get an audience into the Disney mood.]