“You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth.”
At a time when Churchill has rightly been undergoing a reevaluation, Darkest Hour disappointingly skirts any controversial topics by focusing on a few weeks at the start of his premiership, deciding as France falls whether to engage in peace talks with Germany. In a masterful, Oscar-winning performance, Gary Oldman entirely disappears into Churchill’s visage, aided by prosthetics but sold through the physicality of his mannerisms and intonation. It is a complex portrayal that incorporates the irrascible man of words, iconically defiant against the odds, but also a privately wavering man, weakened by alcoholism, and a man who lied to the British people in his first broadcast as prime minister. The film constructed around it, however, is the most banal patriotism, content simply to deify him as a rousing orator. Most jarring is a transparently fabricated sequence in which Churchill rides the underground to seek the public’s opinion, his Macaulay quotation completed by a black Londoner in a rose-tinted portrayal of multiculturalism and British fearlessness. It is saccharine Oscar-bait, and undermines the verisimilitude that pervades much of Darkest Hour. The cinematography suits the title, scenes grimly bathed in shadow and desaturated, frequently near-monochrome, much occuring within the confines of the subterranean War Rooms. There are brief sequences of war in France, and Joe Wright revisits the Dunkirk evacuation (though never in so striking a fashion as his astonishing long take in Atonement). In Wright’s hands, this is all highly competent and compelling filmmaking but, Oldman’s peformance aside, Darkest Hour is a hagiography that serves little purpose with no fresh perspective.
“I don’t know anything about you except that you abused me.”
Content Warning: child sexual abuse
Rooney Mara delivers an utterly absorbing performance as Una, a woman who has decided to confront the man who sexually abused her as a teenager, in an effort to understand and reclaim her past. David Harrower’s script delves into shades of grey in the emotions and motivations of the pair, but not in culpability — even Ray makes no attempt to justify his actions, only to contextualise his feelings, a fine line that Ben Mendelsohn deftly navigates through quiet chemistry with Mara. Una is deeply uncomfortable to watch, and there is a disparity between the memories recalled in conversation and the flashbacks to a fragile thirteen-year-old, ensuring the viewer never loses sight of the victim. Most remarkable about this translation from stage to screen is its use of space and light. The conversations between Ray and Una shift between rooms in a deliberately sparse warehouse with only artificial light: clinically white when the lights are on, and shrouded in darkness when off. This lighting parallels Ray’s past being dragged into the harsh light, yet he often finds it easier to admit to concealed truths in the dark. Throughout the middle section of the film, Ray’s colleagues relentlessly search the building for him, a metaphor for his past catching up with him. Whilst this adds a sense of urgency, the dialogue flounders as the conversation becomes repetitive. The final third of the film shifts to other locations which is necessary to push the story forward, but in the process loses some of the caged tension that drove the film. It allows us to appreciate how prison was finite punishment for Ray but it provided no closure to Una’s relationship with him, this inability to move on leaving her emotionally stunted, using promiscuity in an artificial attempt to reassert control.
“This is the worst possible parenting I can imagine.”
An idiosyncratic Australian indie, Babyteeth takes a familiar subgenre with a seriously ill teenage child, but treats the traditional formula with almost perverse contempt. Milla begins the film by bringing home a 23-year-old drug addict, leaving her parents with a dilemma between protecting and supporting their daughter. All four central characters are deeply flawed but we empathise with each of them (sometimes alternatingly) as they are trying desperately hard not to hurt one another. Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis are perfectly paired as parents faltering under the weight of their child’s illness, though it is Eliza Scanlen’s powerful performance as the chaotic Milla that carries the film. In a story filled with poor decisions, hers are ultimately the most understandable as — like any teen — she prioritises living over surviving. Shannon Murphy has delivered one of the most arresting directorial debuts in recent years, rich with emotion without becoming cloying, whilst the handheld camerawork provides an intimate perspective without becoming voyeuristic.
Those words during a fight late in the film ring like a challenge to detractors who feel threatened by female-led blockbusters. What Captain Marvel ably proves is what most already knew — that the Marvel superhero formula works just as well with a female lead — making it maddening that it has taken until the penultimate film of the decade-long three-phase MCU project to release one. Unfortunately fatigue is setting in with that formula and, where Black Panther shook things up by raising the bar for social and cultural exploration in a comicbook movie, Captain Marvel is largely content to play it safe in a sea of 90s nostalgia. The musical choices from the era are notable, with female fronted acts like Garbage and No Doubt setting a fun and rebellious tone to match Danvers’ own. Brie Larsen is great, though hamstrung slightly by an origin story which has Danvers slowly piecing together her memories so that her personality does not really crystallise until late in the film. The classic superhero action is fun as ever despite virtually non-existent stakes once her incredible powers are fully unleashed.
“This is the OASIS. It’s a place where the limits of reality are your own imagination. You can do anything, go anywhere.”
On one hand, Ready Player One is a better adaptation than it has any right to be; on the other, it is unsurprising that a book I described as “80s nostalgia-flavoured candy floss” has produced a film with little substance or residual impact. The virtual world of the Oasis is impressively realised in a sharply vibrant way. By contrast the real world is shot with an intentionally muted, softer look that makes it actively less engaging. The greater struggle, though, is that there is little logical coherence to ground those parts of the story. Similarly, both 80s and modern pop/gaming culture references are thrown at the screen haphazardly in the hope that name recognition is enough. Even Wreck-It Ralph engaged with the characters it picked. The initial world-building and the first challenge are engaging, but my interest largely fell away until the film’s closing. I’m glad I saw this spectacle in a cinema; I doubt I ever need to see it again.