Darkest Hour (Wright; 2017)

Darkest Hour is the 13th film to be made about Winston Churchill and the second in 2017 alone, and that doesn’t count Dunkirk, a film in which he doesn’t appear but which does cover the same events.  With a topic garnering so much attention, to the point of saturation it could be argued, you had best make sure that something about your film stands out.  In a year with so many biopics and with two other films covering the same territory, Darkest Hour does give itself a bit of distinction, but not nearly enough.

Darkest Hour covers the period of time in Great Britain just prior to Neville Chamberlain being forced out of the office of Prime Minister of England due to a lack of faith in his ability to wage war against Hitler and ends with the rescue of the British troops from the shores of Dunkirk.  Unlike the earlier Dunkirk which showed the event from the point of view of the soldiers stranded and being picked off on the French beaches, Darkest Hour focuses more on the political intrigue surrounding Churchill’s earliest days in office.

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I’m going to come right out and say it straight away, Darkest Hour is prototypical biopic fare.  You’ve seen this movie before, perhaps even about Winston Churchill, in which we have a great actor give a great performance about a renowned historical figure making it appear as if they can do no wrong and anyone who opposes them in any way may as well be a supervillain in a comic book film and along the way we have some good to great cinematography.  That sums up Darkest Hour in a nutshell: rote, by the numbers but very competent biopic filmmaking.

Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill is excellent.  You do see past the veneer of Winston every once in a while and catch Gary peeking through, but overall his portrayal of the man who charted England’s course through World War II is captivating.  Churchill’s lauded dry and often self-deprecating wit shines through, and on top of that Oldman shows us how Churchill learned to transform himself from a cranky recluse to a someone who truly loved people in order to better perform his duties.  It’s the depth the performance needed to make sure Oldman was truly embodying a character and not just mimicking another famous person.  One scene late in the film which takes place on a commuter train is particularly captivating and during those ten minutes or so you forget completely you are watching one person play another, or even that you are watching a film, but become entirely engrossed in watching a man evolve into a someone better than he was before.

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The cinematography is also excellent for the most part.  For a film so focused on locales we are used to seeing grandly shot such as Buckingham Palace and the British Parliament Building, director of photography Bruno Delbonnel gave us a much more claustrophobic, dingy style than we are used to in the grand towers of London to convey the sense of fear and uncertainty so prevalent at the time.  It’s a smart choice and makes for some truly spectacular shots.  The one problem I do have with the cinematography is that every now and then Delbonnel does show off and give us a truly artistic visual which is momentarily awe-inspiring but breaks the mood and flow of the film due to it being so out of place.  Without giving away spoilers, I’ll say that most any shot in the film which starts or finishes from an aerial viewpoint is an example of what I mean.

But, in a year which seems to be redefining how the biopic is made whether it be American Made‘s resemblance to an action film, Stronger‘s nearly complete lack of dramatization, or Professor Marston and the Wonder Women‘s combination of tone, themes, and subject matter, Darkest Hour‘s greatest sin is that it is a very stereotypical biopic.  Winston Churchill is the focus of every scene and is shown to have barely any weakness or character flaw and even on those rare occasions only to allow us to sympathize with him.  His enemies are practically cartoon villains and exist only for us to cheer when Churchill overcomes their plots.  The film shows us that the people who opposed Churchill did so because they feared what war would do to Great Britain and wanted to engage Hitler in peace talks.  With the gift of 75 years of hindsight we can see that Churchill was in the right, but to portray those seeking peace as fools and villains is not only a disservice to diplomats and pacifists everywhere but also makes for a far less interesting story.

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Final verdict:  Darkest Hour is a film worth seeing due to great cinematography and performances, but don’t expect much in the way of enlightenment from it.  We loved films like Ray, Walk the Line, and A Beautiful Mind, but the art form of the biopic has evolved since then, and Darkest Hour is a biopic of the less evolved kind.  If you’re a fan of World War II or biographies in general and are just looking for some light entertainment, then Darkest Hour is an excellent choice.  If you want something truly thoughtful, truly emotional, and truly insightful, though, there have been quite a few better choices to head out and see from just this year alone.

 

A Monster Calls (Bayona; 2016)

We’ve all experienced that story in which the prose is exemplary and the plot intense, but you just don’t connect with the main character.  The sporting event where everyone on both sides plays their hearts out and gives a spectacular showing then the final result is based on a bad call by the referee.  Watching A Monster Calls is very much the same sort of experience.  There is so much which is spectacular, but which then ends up being marred due to flawed technique.

A Monster Calls is the story of Conor (Lewis MacDougall), a twelve year-old aspiring artist whose mum (Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer.  His attachment to his mother due to her state, and the additional stress in his life makes him a target for bullies, one bully in particular (James Melville), add to this an overbearing grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and an absentee father (Toby Kebbel) and Conor has nowhere to escape to except his art and his imagination.  When a tree monster (Lian Neeson) shows up to help Conor in a fuzzy manner, Conor begins to change in ways that scare those around him.

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This set up and opening of A Monster Calls is handled so well it could be used to teach exactly how to handle the show don’t tell rule of screenwriting.  Not once is the word cancer said out loud nor does anyone talk about Conor being an artist, but all these details come across easily and quickly getting us into the story naturally.  Unfortunately, as the story progresses the skill put into the story telling becomes less and less consistent until by the end the characters are literally just blurting out loud how they feel, what they are doing, and what lessons should be learned.  The ultimate lesson is quite a doozy, too, one that takes some bravery to both tell and to allow to sink in so it’s even more unfortunate that by the time we are having it expressed to us it’s done in the crudest possible way.

One element of A Monster Calls that is consistently great, though, is the artistry on display.  The camera work is wonderful with shots through frosted glass windows to obscure what’s happening behind but still giving you an idea, extreme close up shots of pencils and ink so close that shavings are falling onto the paper and ink spreading out to fill its intended area, the titular Monster often quite literally coming out of the woodwork, and so on.  The camera work, the set design, and special effects are all handled wonderfully and with great care giving us a visual experience on par with films like Pan’s Labyrinth or Amelie.  The special effects are also a large part of the show don’t tell element which while inconsistent is done really well when it is done at all well as we see the Monster mirroring the body language and movement of Conor.  While the Monster normally takes on the dominant role when the two are on screen together, a careful viewer will see that the Monster follows Conor’s every move letting us know that what we are seeing is just a projection on his part, and this is the only way the film makes this absolutely clear aside from the audience understanding that this is a realistic film and monsters don’t really exist.

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To further add to the wonderment of the visuals, A Monster Calls has two sections of film that are done using hand drawn animation.  The animation uses a very rough style, but most certainly a stand out one.  The faces of characters can’t be made out, inks run and blend together forming new images and scenes as they do so, the color pallettes are chosen to express a mood, and in the second of the animated pieces, the “real” world of Conor and the Monster begin to blend in with it making for a very beautiful piece and an additional story element that couldn’t be seen coming.

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The acting in A Monster Calls is well done across the board.  Lewis MacDougall who before this had only played a minor role in the film Pan carries the movie excellently.  We absolutely buy into his pain and even the more subtle aspects of the character’s psychology, and this is very much a psychological study, come across well, at least until the closing parts of the film when the writing gives away too much, too quickly, and too crudely, but that is hardly MacDougall’s fault.   Felicity Jones as Mum does a decent job being pathetic and likable, which honestly is really all she is called upon to do.  Sigourney Weaver nails her role as Grandma giving us another nuanced performance (in everything but her accent, I honestly could not tell if she was supposed to be English or American)  in which she has to show that she loves Conor very much, but that is largely due to Mum being her daughter, and also that she will not stand for his acting out.  It’s often a fine line to walk, and she not only walks but dances along it.

A Monster Calls does so much so well, that it’s a near tragedy that it can’t remain consistent.  Two or three brilliant scenes will go by, tugging on your emotions in just the right way, instilling you with awe from the glorious visuals in front of you, and getting across important information to you without your even realizing it’s done so, and then, the Monster will show up and give a rote speech that he is going to do this, and this is why, and this is when crashing you back down to Earth and reminding you that you are just watching a movie, all your belief in this fantasy shattered, and what hope does a monster have if you don’t believe in it?

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Final recommendation:  If you love film primarily for the visual artistry of it, then this is a must see.  The director Bayona and the cinematographer Faura had a beautiful and creative vision that they portrayed wonderfully.  If story is the primary reason you go to the movies, however, it’s a little harder to wholeheartedly recommend.  The story is excellent for the most part, and I feel it deserves to be seen solely for the bravery of its message, but the fact that that message is delivered far too clunkily much of the time and could be a trigger for people who have recently lost a loved one makes me want to say this is not a film for the more casual movie goer.