Darkest Hour; or Justifying Your Existence

There were, according to Letterboxd, 11,896 films released in 2017. If, somehow, you had no biological requirement to sleep or eat or do anything else but watch films released in 2017, you could have watched just under half of those last year[1]. I managed 207 films total in 2017, 85 of them released that year. Kinda puts it into perspective, really.

So why, when people are really going to see so few of these films, were so many made? The optimist's view is that all these directors collectively had 11,896 things to say, had something new to add to the canon of cinema that hadn't been done before, that needed to be explored - that these films all had a reason to exist. It's the optimist's view because the alternative is to accept that some of these films don't have anything to say at all. These films are churned out mechanically, with no interest in anything other than recouping their production budget and then some.

And then why, when there are so many films being made, would an audience go to those films? Take last year's Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. What could the fifth entry in a franchise which had exhausted its source material of an amusement partk ride two thirds into the first film possibly do? No one's heart was in that, not Johnny Depp, not directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, no one's. The acting was wooden, the CGI sets even less so. Yet the film, which for some reason cost $230m to make, more than tripled its budget worldwide. How? Who bought these tickets? If you wanted Depp, you could have gone to see Kenneth Brannagh's Murder On The Orient Express, which at least he cared about; if you wanted wise-cracking spectacle, you had Marvel's two most irreverent films come out this year, made by directors with their own style and their own emotional investment in the film (Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 and Thor: Ragnarok). Why would you choose to watch something made by someone with nothing to say?

It's important to clarify something here: this line of argument is in no way saying that blockbusters are boring and only long, quiet, art house films are valid. One of the silliest films ever made, and one of my absolute favourites, is Airplane!, written and directed by David Zucker, Jerry Zucker, and Jim Abrahams (or ZAZ, for short). Having inadvertently recorded the 50s disaster movie Zero Hour! off the TV one night for research material, ZAZ decided to relentlessly mock that film down to the most miniscule detail, going as far as to buy the rights to the original to avoid any legal issues. They had a singular vision, which is what makes Airplane! infinitely better than your latter-day Disaster Movies and Date Movies.

By far the hardest genre in which to do this properly in is biopics, with most veering towards either hagiography or meaningless platitudes. In 2014 alone, we had two different biopics about brilliant British scientists held back by their own personal suffering. The former, The Theory of Everything, was a derilection of duty, glossing over Stephen Hawking's many, human, flaws in order to tell a generic, rose-tinted tale of triumph over adversity. At points, it might as well not even have been about Stephen Hawking. Meanwhile the latter, The Imitation Game, managed to be reverential towards Alan Turing's monumental impact on our world and the abhorrent, unnecessary tragedy of his death, whilst not being dishonest about Turing's own struggles. But it's too taken with its own inspirational message; I think everyone had got the point the third time someone said "sometimes it's the people expect nothing of that do the things no one expects."

So where does Darkest Hour land on this biopic scale? The key point in its favour is Gary Oldman's performance as Winston Churchill. Oldman, predictably, delivers a detailed, considered portrayal of Churchill, conveying both his unshakeable arrogance and his deep-seated self doubt. It's compelling to watch. Unfortunately, that's about the only compelling aspect of Darkest Hour, because there's nothing for that performance to prop up. Joe Wright has nothing new to say about Churchill, no insight that would justify yet another film about him. There is no particular art to the film, nothing from a cinematic point of view that would differentiate itself from the crowd. Its nomination for Best Picture at the Oscars seems entirely predicated on Oldman's performance, and there's a separate category for that. Without Oldman, no one would be paying attention to Darkest Hour, and to be honest, there's not much to pay attention to. Maybe casting Gary Oldman just isn't reason enough to make a film.

  1. We'll call the average film 90 minutes, for sake of argument. ↩︎