Darkest Hour (2017)

2018 #182
Joe Wright | 125 mins | streaming (UHD) | 1.85:1 | UK & USA / English & French | PG / PG-13

Darkest Hour

2017 was, for no readily apparent reason, a banner year for stories about Dunkirk making it to the big screen. In April there was Their Finest, a film about people making a film about Dunkirk (how apt). In July there was Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s high-profile telling of the evacuation itself. Finally, in January 2018 (because, when it comes to films, January and February are part of the previous year in the UK) there was this, the story of Winston Churchill becoming Prime Minister of the UK in May 1940 and immediately having to deal with the situation in Dunkirk, alongside calls from within his own government to negotiate peace with Hitler — something Churchill was not inclined to do, despite the odds of winning the war not being in Britain’s favour.

The Dunkirk connection was certainly played up in the film’s marketing (the trailers made it look like Dunkirk 2), but while that situation does have a significant role to play (and both films climax with a recital of the same uber-famous speech), it’s only part of what this film’s actually about. Which does actually make it quite a neat companion piece to Nolan’s movie: it expands on the political backdrop surrounding Dunkirk, placing those events in a wider context. In doing that, it presents a different perspective on familiar events. Churchill is widely remembered as a great and beloved leader who saw us through the war, but here his own party treat him as something of a lame duck Prime Minister, and spend most of their time trying to convince him to take a different course of action.

In this respect, Darkest Hour seems dead set on removing the rose-tinted memory of World War 2 which says that “of course we stood up to those evil Nazis”. The film reminds us, and reminds us hard, that there were many people in positions of power who thought the best course was to acquiesce to Hitler — to give in and seek peace with him — and that, in many ways, their opinion was not irrational. Certainly, the film makes the case that it was the safer route in order to both secure the lives of our troops and hold off invasion of our shores. It’s relatively mature to both not hide from that reality and present the arguments as at least somewhat reasonable.

Never surrender

That said, the film fails to maintain the veneer of unvarnished historical reality for its entire running time. In the third act, Churchill boards a train and encounters members of the public in a sequence that is shamelessly, manipulatively, almost tweely patriotic and sentimental… and yet I kinda got suckered in by it anyway. I think that’s got something to do with these dark days we live in — wouldn’t it be nice to believe The General Public would want to stand up for what’s right in the face of overwhelming odds? Whether it’s historically accurate (maybe everyone was just better back then?) or whether it’s a nostalgic view of what people were prepared to stand for, I don’t know; but either way, it’s effectively aspirational.

A film like this is powered by it performances, and obviously Gary Oldman — subsumed in makeup to turn his slender frame into the famously rotund Churchill — is the stand-out. He thoroughly disappears into the role. Obviously the prosthetics help a good deal with that, but it’s also the voice, the gait, the mannerisms. Naturally he dominates the film, but there’s still some space for quality turns in the supporting roles. In particular, Stephen Dillane as the film’s de facto villain, Halifax, gives a performance that, in its own way, is just as mannered as Oldman’s (the lisping voice), but also just as subtly believable and well measured. Pretty much the same thing could be said about Ben Mendelsohn as King Colin Firth George VI.

But then there are other roles that are less well served. The women, mainly. Lily James’ secretary seems to be present merely to give a significant role to a female character, and to try to humanise Churchill by charting a very familiar “he’s tough to work with at first, but he’s got a heart of gold and is just super once you get to know him” arc. Similarly, Kristin Scott Thomas very nearly has an interesting part as Churchill’s wife, his long-time partner who’s been consistently overlooked in favour of his dedication to the public, but that’s an underdeveloped thread.

Supporting role

So, Darkest Hour is a strong movie in many ways — the male performances; Joe Wright’s classy direction; the way it manages to be simultaneously a more-realistic-than-most depiction of the “maybe we should surrender” debates in the early days of the war and a patriotic “we shall never surrender” entertainment — but it’s also let down by some of those lapses into cliché and sentiment. How susceptible you are to the almost-propagandist “this was our finest hour in the face of terrible odds, both at home and abroad” narrative may dictate how much you like the end result. For me, the aforementioned successes outweigh the faults on balance, but there’s no denying there are problems.

4 out of 5

Darkest Hour is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Pan (2015)

2016 #115
Joe Wright | 111 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, UK & Australia / English | PG / PG

Pan12-year-old Peter (Levi Miller) lives in an orphanage in World War 2 London… until the night pirates bungee in through the ceiling and kidnap a bunch of boys onto their flying galleon. Yes, really. From there it’s second star to the right and straight on ’til morning as the pirates take their new charges to Neverland, where they’re forced into the Mad Max-esque mining operator of Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman). When it turns out Peter can fly, a friendly chap by the name of Hook (Garrett Hedlund) helps him escape, and they head off to find Peter’s destiny, etc — he’s some kind of prophesied Chosen One, because of course he is.

For me, that overripe “Chosen One” arc is the weakest element of Pan. Even then, it’s by no means the worst example in fiction, and it’s executed with a degree of fun and commitment that keeps it entertaining. Otherwise, this is an exciting and enjoyable fantasy adventure, best commended for its inventive, well-realised visuals and colourful design, which when it really clicks can be quite incredible. I suppose that might not be enough to overcome a familiar plot for some viewers, but it eases the way in this particular example. And even if the general arc is a bit rote, there are some quite clever spots of construction and/or references to the original. For instance, Peter can’t read (because Wendy will later teach him), but that also pays off within the film when it turns out he can read the fairy language. On the downside, it doesn’t actually directly connect up to Peter Pan, suggesting someone hoped there’d be sequels — because centring a live-action franchise around a boy who doesn’t age is a great idea.

As said boy, Levi Miller manages to make Peter not intensely irritating, which is an achievement compared to other adaptations. Some of that is surely inherited from the writing and directing, but Miller gives a strong performance too. Hugh Jackman hams it up magnificently as Blackbeard, clearly having a riot. Rooney Mara may be miscast due to the colour of her skin (for all the complaints about whitewashing, her tribe is shown to be mixed race… which doesn’t necessarily excuse it), but her actual performance is very good. I felt like Garrett Hedlund was doing an impersonation of someone but I never quite got a handle on who (the character’s definitely written to be Han Solo, but the actor’s not copying Harrison Ford). Adele Akhtar brings comedy as Hook’s chum, Sam ‘Smee’ Smiegel, there are cameos of varying purpose from Amanda Seyfried and Kathy Burke, and Nonso Anozie is always a welcome presence, here playing Blackbeard’s henchman. Cara Delevingne doesn’t act so much as provide a human reference for the CGI.

I also really liked the score, by John Powell of How to Train Your Dragon. It’s probably not groundbreaking or anything, but it’s suitably adventurous and epic-y. That said, there have been some very odd choices in the music department, like the massive Smells Like Teen Spirit sing-along. Because it’s entirely out of context (as noted, the film is set during World War 2) it plays like a Moulin Rouge rip-off. It’s also not a consistently-executed notion: there are nods at other songs, but they’re not as famous (the Ramones’ Blitzkrieg Bop, for instance, which I only know thanks to the end credits) so they don’t stick out quite as incongruously.

Having found Pan to be a very likeable fantasy adventure, I confess to being slightly confused by the response that saw it soundly trounced by most critics and viewers. The review on Blu-ray.com makes the assertion that “today’s movie audience has become so instinctively sophisticated when it comes to CGI-enhanced action sequences that no one can predict what they’ll like”, which I thought was pretty insightful — when does “amazing spectacle” tip over into “oh my God it’s just more CGI”? I think there’s a definite bias based on what people expect of a film. Indeed, a commenter on Letterboxd asserted that most of Pan “consists of the sort of spectacle-as-sleep-inducer set-pieces you find tacked onto the end of Marvel superhero movies”, which at least criticises the sainted Marvel movies for once, but I didn’t think it made up “most of the movie”, nor did I find it sleep-inducing. In fact, I thought Pan had some of the better CGI-driven-spectacle action sequences I’ve seen in our modern overloaded-with-CGI-driven-spectacle era. It is, however, one of those films that must have been genuinely made with its 3D release in mind — as is often the case with those, it’s not the stuff poking out at you that gives it away, but the in-focus backgrounds, which can be especially awkward to navigate in fast-moving action scenes. As Blu-ray.com’s review of the 3D disc notes, “the chaos of the final battle is easier to follow when the action occurs in recognizably separate planes in space.”

Perhaps another aspect of Pan’s reception is some audience members’ devotion to the original story, which may influence how much you can buy into all the changes and adjustments made here. In many aspects it’s not terribly faithful, and if you love the original — especially a particular version, like, say, the Disney one — this might seem like sacrilege. I have no such attachment (though I’ve nothing against Barrie’s work, or Disney’s, aside from my aforementioned aversion to the eponymous hero), so I was perhaps more open to this Epic Fantasy reimagining. (In that last respect, it definitely falls into the same bracket as Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, which I wrote about in my review: classics of children’s fantasy adapted and reconfigured with a post-Potter/Rings mindset.)

So boo to the trouncers: with a bit of an open mind to its changes, and a bit of allowance for some of the ideas that don’t actually work, Pan is a colourful, inventive, fun, family-friendly adventure movie. And I’d definitely have watched a sequel.

4 out of 5

Pan is available on Sky Cinema from today, including on Now TV.

Cut (2009)

2009 #20a
Joe Wright | 2 mins | streaming

CutIs Cut an advert or is it a film?

On one hand, websites featuring it always refer to it as a “short film”; it stars film star Keira Knightley; is directed by BAFTA-winner Joe Wright; tells a story in a film (as opposed to advert) style; and is a whole two minutes long.

On the other, it’s paid for by Women’s Aid to front a campaign to raise awareness of domestic violence; it ends with a message to this effect, also featuring no title card or credits; it’s not listed on IMDb; it’s been shown for free among adverts in cinemas and online; it would’ve appeared on TV too if Clearcast hadn’t banned it for being “too violent”; and it’s only two minutes long.

It’s an advert, isn’t it? But it shouldn’t’ve been blocked from TV, which has incensed me enough to pretend it’s a film for the purposes of my little corner of the Internet.

Or half pretend, because purely as a film it isn’t great. It’s well shot by Wright, but some of the dialogue is too on-the-nose to convince and it’s actually slightly padded near the start — so slightly that in anything longer it wouldn’t be noticeable, but when something’s only 125 seconds, every one counts. On the other hand, it tells its story economically, using single shots to establish a lot of detail about characters, their lifestyles and their relationships, aided by Knightley playing a version of herself. In this the length and depth of story chosen are well-balanced.

When the violence comes, it’s moderately brutal. And here’s the rub — it’s arguably not brutal enough to cover the horrid reality of what some people have to suffer. It’s been made suitable to be shown on TV in a slot where people will see it — which, for its aims as an awareness advert, is completely appropriate. In the wake of Clearcast’s stupid ban I was expecting something more severe, which counterintuitively means the violence is more shocking for what it isn’t. Maybe whoever makes the decisions at Clearcast should watch Hostel: Part II before any appeal — or, to be honest, the 12A-rated Dark Knight might suffice.

With a brief running time and an important message to put across, Cut is a 5-out-of-5 advert, if only for the amount of talk and awareness it’s achieved. But I said I was trying to judge it as a film, so I’ll be a little tighter:

4 out of 5

Cut is available to stream for free on YouTube. More information about the campaign’s impact can be found on Wikipedia.