Darkest Hour – Film Review

Of all the actors who’ve portrayed Sir Winston Churchill, few castings have caused the turning of heads quite like Gary Oldman. A career spent lending his lean, sinewy frame to such rebellious outcasts as Sid Vicious and Lee Harvey Oswald is hardly ideal preparation for playing the jowly, growly titan of British politics, after all. Yet what Oldman lacks in physique, he more than compensates with energy and physicality, superbly capturing the dogged determination of his often larger-than-life subject with greater nuance, depth and, yes, weight than ever before. If only Darkest Hour provided a similarly compelling film to match his absorbing performance.

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Scripted by A Theory of Everythings Anthony McCarten, Darkest Hour is focused on Churchill’s remarkable skills as an orator, pivoting around three crucial speeches he gave over a four-week period in 1940. With Hitler’s forces rampant and Western Europe on the brink, the newly-installed PM comes under pressure to strike a peace deal with the Nazi regime. Refusing to submit to the tyranny of a vicious dictator, Churchill resolves to fight on, placing him in opposition with the King, his political enemies and his own conscience.

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It’s striking to see how convincingly Oldman captures the eccentricity and blustering energy of the notoriously theatrical Churchill. Complimented by considerable, though not overbearing, prosthetics, Oldman’s Churchill barrels through the halls of Westminster, swivels on his heels at the despatch box, and barks orders to his amiable secretary (a spirited Lily James) while sloshing about in the tub or “sealed within the privy”. It’s no wonder many of Churchill’s peers considered him to be an embarrassing liability.

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His performance is no mere caricature, though, exploring Churchill’s fears and flaws with affecting subtlety and empathy. As the situation in Dunkirk becomes more desperate and his adversaries, led by Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), try to steer him towards opening peace talks with Germany, Churchill becomes beset by doubt, plunging into a ‘black dog’ depression as he questions his thinking. Is the war already lost? Is he needlessly sending young men to die? Is his risking the lives of the British people by refusing to negotiate?

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So much of this plays out exactly as you’d expect – hushed meetings in gloomily-lit corridors, cigar-chomping ruminations over war maps, an unexpected arrival to rouse Churchill when all seems lost. And that’s the problem with Darkest Hour: it’s a decent story, engagingly told and with compelling performances, but it lacks an emotive spark to truly make an impact. While director Joe Wright imbues scenes with plenty of visual flair – one stunning motif sees Churchill frequently boxed in by inky-black darkness, everything hinges on Oldman’s powerhouse performance. The pace noticeably dips whenever he’s off screen.

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You sense Wright knows as much, which is why he wisely keeps the camera in lockstep with Churchill’s hustle, prowling alongside him as Oldman drives the drama forward through sheer force of will. It’s telling, then, that when looking for a climactic event, Wright chooses to avoid the more obviously cinematic evacuation of Dunkirk. Instead, he once again draws in on Oldman’s Churchill, stripping everything else away as he delivers a final, soaringly evocative speech to rouse not only his fellow politicians, but an entire nation of fight on in the face of terrible adversity. Gary Oldman playing Winston Churchill? Turns out they’re a perfect match.

Runtime: 125 mins (approx.)
Director: Joe Wright
Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten
Stars: Gary Oldman, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Kristin Scott Thomas

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Baby Driver – Film Review

Movies like this aren’t supposed to get made anymore. If you believe the perceived wisdom, the one-off, daring dramas that used to dominate the box office have been squeezed out by greedy studios, as they chase the next mega-bucks tentpole. Baby Driver has no truck for convention. A hair-raising joy-ride of sweetly executed car stunts set to a foot-stomping soundtrack, this irreverent musical thriller is real pedal-to-the-metal filmmaking and quite possibly the most original movie you’ll see this year.

From it’s opening set-piece, Baby Driver outlines exactly why it’s so extraordinary. As the finger-tapping beat to Bellbottoms kicks in and Ansel Elgort’s eponymous getaway driver launches into an outrageously inventive car chase through L.A.’s crowded highways, it’s clear that this is a movie that has music stitched into its very DNA. And not it’s not just the action: every single frame is painstakingly choreographed to the thrum of Edgar Wright’s impressively eclectic playlist. Even a morning coffee run turns into a La La Land-esque urban waltz as Baby struts and slides through a busy highstreet to the strands of Bob and Earl’s Harlem Shuffle.

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What’s truly remarkable about this movie, though, is how effectively Wright orchestrates such a relentlessly paced thriller without ever allowing his leading-man to get lost in the tire smoke. A demon behind the wheel who always wears ear buds to drown out the “hum in the drum” caused by a childhood accident, it would be easy for Baby to become a clawing bundle of clichés. Yet he’s disarmingly easy to warm towards because Elgort and Wright wisely imbue him with a genuine heart of gold. Orphaned as a child when his mom died in a car accident, Baby now cares for his deaf foster dad Pops, who only communicates using sign language, and spends his nights making mixes from secret recordings of people he’s come across that day.

As Wright gradually unspools his heartbreaking backstory, we slowly learn how such a decent kid got caught up with a bunch of petty crooks and violent criminals. Before he was old enough to see over the steering wheel, Baby foolish nicked a swag-loaded car belonging to ruthless gang leader Doc and has been forced to work for him every since, paying off his debt one job at a time. Elgort pitches his performance perfectly, displaying just the right mix of roguish charm, cheeky confidence and genuine sincerity that promises much for his upcoming high-profile turn as a young Han Solo.

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The supporting cast are no slouches, either. Jamie Foxx has a ball going fully-blown crazy as unhinged career criminal Bats. John Hamm, playing a former stock broker who ran off with his favourite stripper, strikes up a fun double act with Eiza Gonzalez’s persuasive Darling. Meanwhile, Kevin Spacey is suitably menacing and oddly paternal as bank heist extraordinaire Doc, and he gets the pick of the best lines too (“Putting the Asian in home invasion…”). Every one of them can be relied upon to deliver moments of levity and breezily reel off exposition when required.

Only Lily James feels short changed as Baby’s dreamy love interest Debora. A young waitress who dreams of jacking in her dreary life and hitting the highway with no plan of where to go, Debora’s useful as a symbol of everything Baby desires, but she’s completely without a backstory or agency. She’s simply just along for the ride, unwisely clinging on to Baby’s tire tracks even as his predicament spirals into increasingly dangerous – not to mention illegal – territory. It’s a shame because James does solid work as Debora, being suitably desirable but with a wit, charm and strength all of her own.

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If there is one real criticism of Wright’s work here, it’s that the familiar story – a good kid trapped in a bad situation – unfolds pretty much as you would expect. Yet the fact that we’ve heard most of the story beats before hardly matters when the notes are played with such a refreshing verve and style. And when Baby Driver squeals into its break-neck, gas-guzzling, bullet-strewn final act, you’ll be enjoying the ride far too much to remember that you already know where the journey will end up.

Runtime: 113 mins (approx.)

Director/Screenwriter: Edgar Wright

Stars: Ansel Elgort, Jamie Foxx, Kevin Spacey, John Hamm, Lilly James

Country: USA

Star rating: 4/5