Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Brilliant prosthetics can't rescue Darkest Hour

3 stars for Joe Wright's stagy portrait of the great man

No subject is as much written about in organizational psychology as leadership. There are millions of words and thousands of books on it. So there’s Contingent Leadership, Situational Leadership, Accidental Leadership, Leader as Coach, Distributed Leadership – and hundreds more. The one type of leadership no one gives any time to now, except as an historical accident, is Great Man Leadership. The reason Great Man theory has fallen out of fashion is that it is so implausible: there are always innumerable people, men or women, great or otherwise, who contribute to decisions, many of which rely on luck and chance for determining whether it turns out to be the right decision or not. The film industry has yet to catch up with this. They are stuck on Great Men, perhaps because one man winning against enormous odds tends to make for a better story - and that’s the theme of Darkest Hour, set in May 1940 with the British Army stuck in Northern France and defeat by the Germans a real possibility.

There was a much better film lurking here, perhaps in its early stages of gestation. This might have been Churchill as a self-doubting show off, a performer, a bit of a bully, a little silly and childlike, with a dodgy political record, unwell and not popular with his party, yet far sighted enough to see what the right moral and military path would be. You can see the faint threads of this idea in the scene where Churchill (Gary Oldman) goes to his hat stand and asks it which hat he should wear that day, or the one where a cynical fellow politician from his own side points out how much Churchill likes the sound of his own voice. This version of the film would also have shown that in the terrifying circumstances of the time there was a real case for trying to make peace with the Germans.

Image resultThis would have been a more restrained and subtle film with a lot less ‘acting’. The acting style is National Theatre Shouty – in fact the whole thing is very stagy. I can imagine it being performed at the Olivier Theatre: the revolve with the picturesque sets (War Room, Clemmie’s boudoir, Cabinet Room, Buckingham Palace) and the audience playing the MPs in the House of Commons. And watching the film I had the feeling I’d seen it all before: all those other very good Churchill impersonations, all those other darkest hours.

Yet the film does not trust the audience to understand the background, so there’s far too much filmsplaining where people tell each other things they already know, eg ‘Lord Halifax, the Foreign Minister’ or ‘People didn’t like the fact that Churchill was on the wrong side during the Abdication’ and of course the Map Room, the maps with pins in to ‘explain’ Dunkirk. As ever, there are too-old-for-their-jobs generals who are clueless about what to do because it is the Great Man’s role to solve the military problem.

The screenplay constantly wants to boost the drama and its nadir is a laughable scene where it takes a Tube train six minutes to go one stop to Westminster (in real life this would take about a minute) and Winston, an aristo who has never used a bus or a Tube in his life, conducts an anachronistic focus group, with a careful selection of brave Londoners, on whether to surrender or not. Naturally they all chorus ‘Never!’

Oldman’s prosthetics are brilliantly convincing, though I wonder if the real life alcoholic, overweight 65-year-old depressive would actually have bounded upstairs and along corridors as he does in the film. There’s also a daft scene with the King where, apropos of nothing, the King asks Churchill how he got on with his parents. Oh dear, these chaps never talked about their parents except in stiff upper lip code.

I find Joe Wright a very mannered director. As soon as I start thinking ‘wonder what kind of track they laid for that shot?’ or ‘why did he chose a zoom there?’ I’m lost and there’s a lot of that. Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk seems to me to be a far superior film, covering almost exactly the same days, with very moving, straightforward directing, all the better for eschewing heroics and with a lot more dramatic tension, even though, as here, we already know the outcome. 

All the fringe things are terrific: production design spot on, make up authentic, costume ditto, supporting cast excellent, especially Ronald Pickup as the cancer-stricken Neville Chamberlain. The cinematography has a smoky look which feels absolutely right. But if the screenplay feels wrong, nothing can retrieve a film for me. 

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