True confession time: Joe Wright’s 2005 Pride & Prejudice is one of my all-time favorite movies. I am in love with both Keira Knightley as Elizabeth, and Matthew MacFadyen as Darcy. Early Rosamund Pike and Jena Malone performances are icing on this extra yummy cookie dough feast. The cinematography, production design and and all-around world building achieve sumptuous levels. This film transports me in time, and makes me wish for a kind of romance that I don’t think actually exists in real life.
The most important part of Pride & Prejudice for me — the fantasy escapism — removes all intrusion of real-world worry. Nothing feels even a little bit close to my true life. And this is exactly why I didn’t really want to see Wright’s new film, the Oscar-nominated Darkest Hour. Even the title feels oppressive and worrisome, the opposite of a Jane Austen period adaptation.
But I never really had any choice. I had to see Darkest Hour. It completes my mission to view all the Best Picture nominations for the 2018 Academy Awards. A self appointed, yet mandatory, task in recent years. To my most pleasant surprise, Winston Churchill was apparently a man of great wit and funny disposition. Despite the consequences of the decision contemplated in the film (make peace with Hitler but allow Europe to fall, OR fight on and possibly lose it all.) I wasn’t depressed or overwhelmed by this motion picture.
I have done only a little research to determine how much poetic license has been taken with events, but I am guessing things have been pushed around to maximize national British pride and patriotism. A fantastical scene puts Churchill in the London Underground with commoners, asking their advice … give up or fight on? While fun and a real crowd-pleaser, a quick web search would disprove the reality of this history (fake news on the filmmakers part?)
I experienced Dunkirk last summer (in a real film IMAX theater) and this helped me a lot. Having a sense of events from the other side of the English Channel made Churchill’s process and potential consequences more immediate and urgent. While these films are stylistically and structurally nothing alike, they make nice companions to each other. That said, Dunkirk holds masterpiece status for me, while Darkest Hour would fall squarely into the really good but not quite great, historical drama section of Media Wave, the once great but now defunct video rental store in my hometown.
And by comparison with Dunkirk … well there just is no comparison. Where Dunkirk feels grave and griping and left me shellshocked, Darkest Hour just left me feeling like I had a pretty good time watching Gary Oldman. A political drama that reveals some stuff, but really feels mostly like a character study of Winston Churchill. That’s not a bad thing, but just isn’t nearly as compelling as finding a way to make us feel the magnitude of world events unfolding in front of us. Every Marvel movie posits the end of the world. Churchill really was fighting this threat, but I never really feel it in my bones.
Gary Oldman succeeds mightily in transcending the movie that surrounds him. Nearly unrecognizable, (five hours of make-up a day) Oldman delivers a fully realized character and embraces relationships with the same passion I imagine Churchill himself did. I can see Oldman lurking in there, but just barely, and not in a distracting way. This character is a joy to watch on screen, while not completely removing the gravitas of the situation. Even if I didn’t know anything about history, Oldman still makes me feel deep down that what happens next is a very big deal. Yet, Oldman’s embodiment of this historical figure may not be the films crowning achievement. Man, did I feel like I walked the British wartime Parliamentary halls side-by-side with Mr. Churchill.
Stellar production design creates an atmosphere dripping with mid twentieth-century Great Britain. Not a moment exists where you don’t feel like 1940’s London served as the filming location. The streets, the people, the costumes, the hair and make-up, the war room … if this isn’t time travel then I don’t know what is. More than flying superheroes or space travel, I am continuously amazed by tech’s ability to bring the past to life, and Wright executes the past with meticulous perfection here.
On a scale of 10 historical dramas, I give Darkest Hour 7.0 wartime monologuing actors. Worth a watch, but not sure why the Academy nominated it for Best Picture.