Biopics and historical dramas are tricky stories to bring to the screen. One needs to find a good way to stay true to the facts and yet highlight emotional elements that become good entertainment. It’s important to create a clear picture of an era and its main subjects, what was relevant to them, and why they became who they became, without detailing every single aspect of their lives – for the sake of time, money and the viewer’s patience.
Some historical periods have already been covered to exhaustion in cinema: while that makes it harder to find an angle that hasn’t yet been explored, audiences’ familiarity with the topics also means directors can often cut straight to the point they want to make. Take World War II, for instance. This Oscar season alone, we have two contenders in the Best Picture category (this one, and “Dunkirk”) who cover the topic – all from the eyes of the British.
Director Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour” puts iconic British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in the early days of the War. He’s new and wasn’t the first choice for his position, and yet he’s the man in charge of a difficult decision: to attempt to negotiate with Hitler or fight a traditional war against all odds.
Gary Oldman, aided by heavy make-up and prosthetics, is completely unrecognizable in the role of the Prime Minister. It’s his perhaps the best characterization of the politician ever attempted – in cinema or TV. Displaying complete control of his craft, Oldman – the strongest contender to take home this year’s Best Actor award at the Oscars – exposes Churchill’s emotions and maddening sentimentalism, as well as the aristocratic pretensions of a man that was, at the same time, extremely rough, intelligent and determined. While it could be easy to fall into caricature – I mean, the man was a walking caricature himself! – Oldman avoids it by deconstructing the myth. When the actor disappears and fully becomes the character, it’s beautiful to see.
But while the moments Churchill faces in the few weeks the film covers are nothing short of world-changing, don’t go into this film expecting brilliant insights. We get to see snippets of white, old men looking and sounding important, hear some of the radio addresses Churchill gave his people, and see him alone in his room either chasing a cat or hoping to make the right decision after being served breakfast in bed. The dilemmas we are presented with, however, portray a dichotomy that is as poor as is untrue: there are never only two options during a war, and yet that’s precisely what this film makes it look like. If they portray Churchill as the man that was roughly cut but sharp enough to figure out one couldn’t – and shouldn’t – negotiate with Hitler, there’s always more to war than just that, but yet not more much we get to see.
For a picture that covers a traditional topic and looks made to accurately portray history, Wright surprises with artistic and unexpected shots, like the one where Churchill uses the elevator to his War Rooms or the aerial images of an effervescent Parliament in the midst of an electoral process. Biopics don’t often display lots of artistry and inspiration, so these good moments come as a glimpse of what else could have been. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (“Amélie” and “Inside Llewyn Davis”), working with a period mostly seen in dark and grim ways, finds ways to surprisingly add color and vivacity, a change that my eyes most certainly welcomed.
But the film doesn’t come without a fair share of problems: while Churchill most definitely wasn’t the establishment’s first choice for PM, the film elevates the tensions between him, Halifax (Stephen Dillane) and Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) to the Nth degree. Is this supposed to replace the lack of battle scenes in the film? And then, comes that bizarre – and completely made-up – scene at the metro station. Why create a historical drama if we completely fabricate what the film builds as its most important moment? Oscar-bait, that’s why! Although we’re used to having our emotions constantly manipulated by films, the moment it becomes too obvious is also when it’s easy to disengage.
Can a movie truly be ruined by one scene? Oh, I bet it can. This moment is certainly the bit I’ll remember – if I do – this film at all, but certainly not in a good way. It undermines what we’ve learned about Churchill, showing him in an indecisive light that contradicts most of what has been presented before. But then again, it’s a movie, not a documentary, and the scene can also serve as an allegory for what influenced Churchill in his decision-making process. So let yourself be taken by its dramatic twists and turns if you will and let yourself be contaminated by a spirit of strength and resilience if you may. With me, it’s too simplistic to work.
Director: Joe Wright (also known for “Atonement” and “Pride & Prejudice”.)