“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.
“Is this a dagger which I see before me, The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.”
That Joel Coen’s first solo outing is a Shakespeare adaptation is something of a surprise, given that his brother and longtime collaborator chose to step away from movies in order to focus on theatre. Coen’s approach is anachronistic, retaining the original setting and dialogue, but adopting a visual style that evokes 1920s cinema, stark black and white with an almost square 1:1.19 aspect ratio from the end of the silent era, replete with rounded corners to the frame. The staging is similar with minimalist shallow-depth sets against smoky, eerily projected backdrops. This is a film that prizes atmospherics above all else, clearest perhaps from Katherine Hunter’s haunting performance as the prophesying witches, contorted in bird-like garb and movements. Denzel Washington delivers a thoughtfully low-key Macbeth, whilst Coen regular Frances McDormand is excellent in the early scenes as the instigating Lady Macbeth, but her role feels slightly sidelined in a script that compresses the play into under two hours. Brenden Gleeson stands out amongst a supporting cast which at times is overshadowed by Coen’s preoccupation with atmosphere. This is Shakespeare designed for a modern audience but not for mainstream appeal.
“They’re so easily taken when they are distracted, people are.”
There is a level of sleight of hand in selling six short films as a feature length release when they are essentially unconnected beyond their Western setting. Eccentric characters in farcical situations are a Coen Brothers staple but brevity leaves them feeling more like caricatures from Tim Blake Nelson as the titular crooning gunslinger of the opening tale to Tom Waits’ gold prospector to James Franco’s ill-fated bank robber. The exception is the penultimate tale, The Gal Who Got Rattled, which stands out as the best segment by some margin — its greater length allows its key players to develop so that we actually come to care about the events that befall them. The otherworldly final tale, in which strangers converse during a journey in a station wagon (with longform dialogue reminiscent of Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight but with none of the tension), hints at intended depth behind these dark morality plays that is never properly conveyed. The Coens’ signature style — aided by several strong performances — is still enough to sell the collection, butit falls short of the mark.