Thursday, January 4, 2018

Darkest Hour (2017)

The Other Battle of Dunkirk
"Are We Terribly Old?" "Yes, I'm Afraid You Are."

If Christopher Nolan's fractured telling of the events of Dunkirk wasn't enough for you this year, Joe Wright comes along with Darkest Hour, a straight-forward timeline of the changing of England's Prime Ministry right before the fall of Europe to Nazi Germany, as made clear by the pushing of England's "entire professional soldiery" (as they are described here) to the sea. Wright, as a director, visited the story once before in his highly-recommended film of Atonement—and managed it in one long continuous five minute "shot" that  encompassed the desperation of the soldiers trapped on the beach.

Meanwhile, during a clear demonstration of their military against the German war machine, Britain was having a crisis of confidence. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (played by Ronald Pickup here), in 1938, had secured an agreement from Adolph Hitler to stop his aggression across Europe—the Munich Accord—which the dictator promptly violated. After an attempt by Allies to create a front against German forces appeared to be a route, Chamberlain resigned and after some dithering, the PM position was handed to the Conservative Party with Winston Churchill's call to service by King George VI (you remember him from The King's Speech, don't you, and he's played—rather uncannily—by Ben Mendelsohn). 

This was not a popular choice. Churchill, as per his countenance, was a bit of a bulldog. While Chamberlain sought to negotiate, Churchill would broker no talk. Not with Hitler. And the man saw no comfort in the moat around their island-nation, not with the extended range of Germany's luftwaffe. Churchill's answer was to meet Hitler force to force, which was not popular in Parliament. He was...very reluctantly...tapped for the Ministry, and was opposed from his first days in office.     

Gary Oldman is not the first choice that comes to mind to play Churchill, but the man is such a chameleon that once you start getting used to Oldman's higher timber of voice, you buy into it. The make-up crew have done a heroic job of getting him to the suggestion of Churchill's famous mug and then the man just morphs into the mannerisms, the gruffness, and the cadences. 

But, when the story starts, after some documentary footage and back-story for viewers "who just came in," Wright begins the story proper with a device that he will use continually throughout the film—a high overhead shot looking directly down at Parliament. At this juncture, the camera will snake down among the quarreling Lords, as Chamberlain resigns and director Wright turns to Churchill's empty chair while concerns are nattered about his absence and why—"to ensure his finger-prints are not on the murder weapon" is the comment.

But, no. Churchill is in bed. The first we see of him is the red flare of a cigar being lit in a darkened room before the curtains are thrown back to reveal daylight. He is waiting. Knowing full-well that he is not the first choice to be picked, he is content to let the waffling go on without him. And he must break in a new secretary, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James—last seen in Baby Driver), who has been informed of Churchill's tendency to mumble through his dictation, and misinformed that he likes his missives typed single-spaced. Having screwed up that "the time is right" rather than the time is ripe," Layton runs out of the room, more than willing to quit the first time out when she is greeted by Mrs. Churchill—"Clemmie" (Kristen Scott Thomas)—"Did he shout at you?" then turns and roars up the stairs "He's an awful brute!!" before storming the bed-room and mollifying his eccentricities and patiently telling him that his behavior must be changed. It is HIS fault, not the secretary's. And Churchill can only back down before her authority, which is sacrosanct.

Now, back to those overhead shots: Wright has always had the tendency to be a bit "showy" behind the camera—that five minute "Dunkirk" shot is an example. The thing is that tendency is rarely cheap and gets paid off by some remarkable resonance somewhere else in the film. It usually happens when he is "opening up" the film outside of the stuffy rooms and cloistered bunkers in which conversations are practiced in usually civil tones—those shots are inevitably at eye-level, the best vantage to see the daggers flying. 

But, outside the ideology and tactical speculation, the world is seen from God's point of view, whether he is looking down at refugees fleeing Belgium, or across a flight-path pock-marked with bomb-craters.*

That strategy will be capped by a shot that back-tracks a previously-mentioned Brigadier Nicholson, charged with a suicide mission to distract the Nazi advance, as he reads a telegram telling him reinforcements will not come, but he still puts on a confident show for his men as he moves forward through his position, only to look up, as the camera moves overhead, is eclipsed by a German bomber and we follow its bombs down as they snuff out any hope...or any doubts.

It's moments like these—Wright's well-considered tricks and sleights-of-hand—that elevate Darkest Hour from your standard "Masterpiece" presentation (ala The King's Speech) and moves it into a realm where art and history combine to evoke memory...but better than we imagined it.
Wright must have watched Casablanca recently...

* That will be paid off when the angular motion across the field will morph into the body of a war victim, their open terrified eyes glowing red with the fires of war. That one sent a chill up my spine. Arty, yes, but gutsy, too.

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