An unrecognisable Garry Oldman as Winston Churchill.
There’s no doubt about Garry Oldman’s performance as Winston Churchill in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, but the film itself is a case of style over substance, with the addition of some downright embarrassing moments in the script.
Along with Oldman goes full marks, and no doubt awards, for the outstanding prosthetic designers, cinematography, costumes, and art direction. But what destroyed this film for me was Wright’s overindulgence in visual gimmickry. Endless plan-view zooms, both in and out, of stairwells, aerial shots and bombing. Unnecessary close-ups of the passing objects. Slow-motion panning shots of street scenes showing background extras, looking like background extras being far too self-conscious, along with overly clean period cars, and some of those were post-war models.
The self-consciousness of the extras was heightened by the use of slow motion and car boffins would spot the post-war Ford Anglia (far left). A silly mistake when so many prewar models would have been readily available from enthusiasts.
But far worse were two dreadfully sentimental and questionable scenes. The first is the unlikely close relationship between Churchill and his overly pretty typist/secretary Elizabeth Layton – it smacks of being manufactured by committee.
The rather more glamorous Elizabeth Layton (played by Lily James ) than the genuine Elizabeth below.
The second is an absolutely ludicrous scene when Churchill goes AWOL at a crucial moment when he is being pressured into peace talks with “Herr Hitler” via Mussolini to avert the impending Dunkirk massacre. To help with the taxing dilemma, Winston decides to join “the ordinary people” on an underground train.
"Cor blimey! It's Mr Churchill anall".
The trigger for this event is at the opening of the film, when Winston, cosseted in the back of his chauffeur-driven car, looks out at a bus and says “You know, I have never travelled on a bus”. Fast forward to the end of the film and we have Winston sitting in a crowded tube carriage, complete with Homburg hat and Havana cigar, where he canvasses views on the mood of the country from the ridiculously humble London passengers. It is like a jaunty, forelock-tugging, Enfield/Whitehouse 1940s sketch. Utterly laughable.
"We're with you all the way, Gor bless you Mr Churchill Sir".
Within this lavishness, there could have been a great film. But it is marred by visual over stimulation and a very patchy script.
Bruno Ganz as Hitler in Downfall 2004.
You only have to view Oliver Hirschbiegel’s brilliant film Downfall to see how a serious historical subject can be handled with great skill and subtlety, without an ounce of sentimentality or visual gymnastics, to understand what I am on about. Wright seems to have picked up Stephen Spielberg’s irritating habit of inserting syrup-driven sentimentality into his films. And, incidentally, you’ll find that in Spielberg’s latest The Post.
Often, when directors get to a stage in their careers when they have all the tricks made available, they tend to want to show them. It reminds me of a quote from the late great advertising man Bill Bernbach, who warned creatives not to gild the lily:
“Be provocative. But be sure your provocativeness stems from your product... Merely to let your imagination run riot, to dream unrelated dreams, to indulge in graphic acrobatics is not being creative. The creative person has harnessed his imagination. He has disciplined it so that every thought, every idea, every word he puts down, every line he draws... makes more vivid, more believable, more persuasive...”
I think Bill knew what he was talking about. Less is always more, and Darkest Hour could have been a superior film had Joe Wright adhered to that, along with using a sturdy pair of scissors to cut out the duff scenes.