Friday 12 January 2018

"Darkest Hour" (Catholic Herald 11/01/18)

Mention Churchill to movie execs, and they respond as his namesake nodding dog: “Oh, yes.” As the debate over national identity rages on, it is perhaps inevitable we should rally around the totemic Briton, and see what wisdom he might still impart to us. Last summer’s Churchill adopted a detailed biographical line; now there’s Darkest Hour (**, PG, 126 mins), an altogether more bombastic procedural punching up our Winston’s first month in office. In the lead role, not some age- and looks-appropriate actor, burrowing inwards towards a core Churchillian truth, rather Gary Oldman, trapped beneath several pounds of latex: the first fatal error of a film forever straining for a weight and gravity beyond its reach.

The script, by The Theory of Everything’s Anthony McCarten, arrives larded with contemporary parallels. Darkest Hour opens on a sepulchral Commons, amid a growing leadership crisis: replacing the enfeebled Chamberlain as PM, Churchill must win over dissenting MPs from both sides of the aisle while commencing frantic negotiation with those on the frontlines to protect Britain’s sovereignty. For director Joe Wright, this necessitates setting Oldman down in shadowy corners (darkest hour, see), from where the actor huffs and puffs towards vast pools of light. The approach owes less to AJP Taylor than Bonnie Tyler: it’s history redrawn in broad pop-promo strokes for a nation desperately holding out for a hero.

As his flashy replay of Dunkirk in 2007’s Atonement demonstrated, Wright deals in non-subtle, easily translated images that are just expensive enough to dazzle wider-eyed onlookers. For Darkest Hour, he rolls out countless aerial perspectives of battlefields in a bid to open up what’s essentially a series of Cabinet meetings, but so much of this movement seems reductive: the PM meeting a winsome refugee’s gaze while flying into France, or jovially discussing policy decisions during a deeply condescending, biographically dubious Tube commute. Increasingly, Darkest Hour plays like a vision of Britain for a Britain that needs its politics simplified into caricature, a vulgarisation that extends to the conception of Churchill himself.

One-sided awards buzz suggests this is the Oldman show, and it’s certainly striking watching a once-unmatchable performer fighting a losing battle with a fat suit. Whatever the technical challenges, however, the results are a slap in the face to those older actors who might not have needed the phoney bulk, and – to these eyes, at least – a sorry extension of the star’s recent descent into under-directed scenery-chewing. Wibbling about boiled eggs, bellowing about everything else (“Tell the Lord Privy Seal I am sealed in the privy!”), this windbag Winston most often resembles one of Matt Lucas’s creations from a show that provides Darkest Hour with both an alternative title and, presumably, its target demographic: Little Britain.

Darkest Hour opens in cinemas nationwide today.

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