Sunday 21 January 2018

The Current Cinema - Peter Hourigan takes up the cudgels over Joe Wright's DARKEST HOUR (UK, 2017)

Max Berghouse added some complimentary comments to the generally ecstatic lauds that seem to be greeting Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour.  He did have some qualifications, though, and that’s where I’d like to pick up.  I can’t say I had a very satisfactory time with the film. (Click on the images to enlarge them.)

Joe Wright (r)
Wright has certainly made a number of films that have been very favourably received ‘in the right circles, the respectable circles.’  Perhaps the rot, however, set in with the reception of Atonement (2007).  Here, he had a wonderful novel as source material. And with Ian McEwan (the novel’s original author) and Christopher Hampton as screenwriters, he was pretty much safe. 

James McAvoy, Atonement
But Wright had to prove he was a film director. So he came up with a virtuoso ten-minute long tracking shot along the stranded troops at Dunkirk.  In the middle of the film, the sequence screamed out, “Look at me. Aren’t I fucking brilliant!”  And because the shot was so obviously virtuosic most of the critics said, “Yes, you’re fucking brilliant.” Despite the fact that this completely disrupted the film’s rhythm and didn’t serve any other dramatic purpose in the film.

Anna Karenina
Of course, these kinds of shots and devices can work – and I think they do, brilliantly, in his 2012 film of Anna Karenina.  Here, he had the controlling concept of his screenwriter, Tom Stoppard, another formidable English writer, who came up with a wonderfully theatrical framework for adapting such a complex piece of literature.  Wright had lots of reasons to be ‘show-off’ in coming up with theatrical devices, and they’re consistent throughout the film. I think it’s one of the most creative examples of how a difficult literary work can be adapted to cinema.  Thanks, I’m sure to Stoppard.

Anthony McCarten
Then up comes Darkest Hour.  Script – Anthony McCarten.  Main claim to fame so far, the bio-pic of Stephen Hawking.  Perfectly acceptable, but no great insights or depths to the story.  You don’t have to when you have a life like that.

And McCarten doesn’t really do much with Churchill either.  But you don’t need to when you can get an actor to go for an easy impersonation rather than a performance. And Oldman gives a very effective impersonation, within the bounds of the script.

Darkest Hour
Meanwhile, Wright continues looking for moments to show he is directing.  And it was these moments that kept popping up and distracting me throughout the film. Westminster is busy, even in the lobby – how do we show this? Choreograph two extras (MPs or similar) to walk as a pair across the back of the set, left to right. When they reach the end of the screen, start off the next pair of extras to walk from the top of the frame to the bottom, where another two are waiting to now cross from right to left. Where (surprise!) another two are waiting for their cue to complete the square by moving from the bottom of the screen to the top.

Or Churchill in a dark moment, retreats to a small room (can’t remember now if it’s a pantry, or what) that has a door with a small glass window on it. So when Oldman is on his mark inside the room, the door can shut. The lighting outside the room is pitch dark, so when the door shuts, there’s only this small rectangle in the middle of the otherwise black frame, and in it is Oldman’s head, despondent.  Get the symbolism?

Kristin Scott Thomas, Clementine Churchill
I’m really not someone who notices women’s hairstyles in a film.  But I couldn’t avoid Kristen Scott Thomas’s monster as Clementine Churchill. Now, look at any images of Clementine and she did wear a somewhat extravagant hairstyle. But it also looked liveable.  Not here. Or perhaps by this stage, I was so either so aware that dramatically the film was rather thin, or I’d become so distracted by all of Joe Wright’s ‘touches of directorial flair’ that I was missing the drama.

Sorry, everyone. I think this will clean up at the Oscars – and they deserve it.

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