Empty and vapid, conservative and conservatively-styled, Darkest Hour is a cinematic tale as old as time, and as cloying. It’s the sort of dog-tired Oscarbait equally at home in the 1950s, the 1990s, and apparently today. It’s a stodgy and unfortunately-not-antiquarian film that is, dramatic theatrics and Nazis aside, essentially comforting in its bog-standard reactionary simplicity. By reactionary, incidentally, I mean something different than and I suspect deeper than a matter of political principle. I refer to something more akin to a sensibility, an animating assumption for not only the film’s political assumptions but its personal style and attitude. Darkest Hour is a conservative film in demeanor, in its very soul, a regurgitation redolent of Hollywood royalty and something we’re told is the steadfast British spirit, but is in reality a timid, blanketed, blinkered view of the world and cinema’s place in it. And by redolent, I do not simply refer to the screenplay’s self-apparent similarity to The King’s Speech, another slice of 2010’s Oscarbait.
Darkest Hour is transparently spellbound with the myth of its subject, Winston Churchill, not to mention what it takes to be his supreme competence. It also lightly and unexpectedly but trivially engages in minute, ancillary myth-reductions – did you know that Churchill was, aghast, mean! Stubborn! – but only ever in service of making him a man so that it can then turn around and begin with its myth-making, making him a Great Man. And to douse him in Great Style, by which I do mean Great rather than great. Director Joe Wright is a self-evident Old School stylist, infatuated with not only Churchill’s theatricality but the theatricality of Old Hollywood. In this sense, Darkest Hour is comfort-food cinema in more ways than one, a well-mounted but trivial act of reclaiming a lost vision of the world rooted in bold gestures, grand meanings, and definitive opinions, a pre-modernist image of certainty in uncertain times.
Wright’s Darkest Hour is essentially Wright’s Atonement, or any other number of Wright films: tepid old slabs of big-small cinema, accentuated but not actually accented by his showy, bravura stylistic gestures that draw attention only to themselves. They stick out like sore thumbs in an age of dramatic cinema sometimes ambivalent about its relationship to ostentatious style. But Wright’s style also fits snugly into Wright’s middle-brow package of blockbuster entertainment, crowd-pleasing films for “mature” people to enjoy and pat themselves on the back for “appreciating” this sort of art in lieu of whatever low-brow robot thing Michael Bay is carting into theaters.
“Appreciate”, I might add, in exactly the way and through exactly the means which those apparently less dignified viewers enjoy their chosen forms of robot-oriented cinematic pap: passively. Darkest Hour is neither more intelligent nor more substantial in any way than any mediocre summer blockbuster, and it requires nothing more out of the viewer. It merely trades in a brand of superficial that wheels and deals in historical references and stars in “transformative” roles – ie body suits – rather than explosions. But in both cases, the viewer’s position is essentially submissive, docile, obedient. Neither proposes any sort of dialogue with the viewer, neither resists in any way. Darkest Hour is handsome, professional, respectable, and entirely desolate at a thematic and intellectual level. In spirit and nuance, it’s roughly at the level of any (much less pretentious) summer blockbuster, albeit with the impeccable technical mastery of arbitrary CG replaced with the equally impeccable technical mastery of equally arbitrary Gary Oldman Churchill-mimicry.
Yes, I said it. Despite the substantial presence of Gary Oldman, here donning prosthetics, make-up, and costumes in service of a simulacrum of the big man, his performance as Churchill is relatively insubstantial cartoon mimicry, very studied and nominally professional but in a surface-level, mostly “technical” way. It’s not light-hearted, really, but it is acquiescent to the material, and interested in little other than showboating, shaking his jowls as if demanding we notice how much “effort” he’s putting into rocking his body suit rather than how little his performance adds to an already superficial, hoary screenplay. He’s … jocular, I suppose, even entertaining, but never more than that, and the film obviously needs him to be, resting on the performance like a burden and crucifying itself on a cross of prestige acting. And prestige filmmaking, all grandiose gestures from both the director and actor at every available turn. Even The King’s Speech had the good grace to sometimes accept its flimsiness at face value and reshape itself from prestige historical drama into sugar-and-vinegar buddy comedy, appreciating not only the high-minded dramas from the era it depicts but the screwball comedies, the fracases that would disobey Darkest Hour’s desperate craving for substance, its excursion into the realm of the exalted.
The film’s largeness seems maximally designed in every way to fill out Churchill’s suit, and his historical reputation. All in service, ultimately, of an exalted view of history, and one which reveals less about the events of WWII than its historical memory. Ultimately, Darkest Hour is a complacent film, and a complicit exercise in cinematic box-checking, a work designed to console audiences by returning to The Last Moral War to rally around a view of Britain where right was right, wrong was wrong, and where Big, Jolly, Emphatically Right Men just plain were right. In this manner, Darkest Hour is a theater of the self, an absurd spectacle that feeds us only our extant views of the world, an idealized vision of human action rooted not in dialogic consternation or genuinely working through strife but in boldly hammering on righteous causes and unerringly having dogmatic determination rewarded. Screenwriter Anthony McCarten’s equally menial, vacant screenplay for the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything was worse in other ways – more saccharine, mainly. But his writing here is more problematic, holding on for dear life to whatever scraps of unquestioned morality it can in trying times. Its style cotangent to its morality, Darkest Hour is a Great Film about a Great Man. One is a superficial theory about how to understand history. The other is an equally superficial theory on how to make films.
All The Money in the World
A strangely empty drama, All the Money in the World has almost nothing to say about the world, society, the wealthy, politics, or media reception of personal tragedy, even though it occasionally remembers it’s supposed to. I don’t have much value for allegories, but watching the mechanical All the Money in the World, one thirsts for any caliber of thematic resonance beyond the story of one or two family members. It’s certainly there, lurking in the wings of the screenplay and only occasionally foregrounded in mostly hackneyed ways, but it only haunts the film with specters of what might have been achieved. David Scarpa’s screenplay turns the story of self-insulating wealth into an even-more-insulated thriller about recovering a lost child.
I’d be tempted to suggest that the Kevin Spacey-replacement scandal/carnival that also haunts the film is a noose around its neck, except that the film doesn’t have a leg to stand on by itself. At least the threat that the film is meaningful extra-filmically, or off-the-screen because of its production-story, gives us any reason to talk about it. That, and Spacey’s replacement Christopher Plummer is self-evidently the sharpest tack in the bunch, the only figure besides Michelle Williams – who is never bad in any role – to grasp any humanity in the film at all. Curdled humanity, in this case. Plummer plays billionaire J Paul Getty, whose grandson Paul Getty (Charlie Plummer, no relation) is kidnapped and held for 17 million dollar ransom. With the elder Getty infamously disinclined to negotiate for his grandson at all, Plummer plays him as a cruel façade of humanity, giving him a tickle of warmth that intimates a man endeared to only himself. He’s insulated by a wealth that becomes his only friend even though he truly believes that his actions are driven by human compassion rather than individualistic alienation. Plummer devours the film in its entirety, both enlivening it and exposing how indifferent it is when he isn’t actually on screen.
Outside of Plummer, the film’s opening moments, where a lilting camera gives free-reign to explore the cracks of Rome as if lost in a dream, are the only images where the film’s style at all suggests the casually indifferent, unconcerned mindset of the wealthy. After that, it’s all rote plot mechanics. Michelle Williams is the only fount of personality as the younger Getty’s mother, and Mark Wahlberg is on hand as himself, although the character is named “Fletcher” and we are told he is a security person of sorts. The other issue is Scott’s style, which is, as usual for his 21st century films, inimitably pristine and soullessly perfect. The remnants of the vast patches of negative space and the howls of cinematic abyss he perfected in Alien have been turned into lugubrious echoes of their former self. Here, the style doesn’t service anything thematically so much as package the film up in false airs of importance, a sepulchral commitment to “important themes” . Themes that the film doesn’t so much explore as assume to be present simply because it is a story about wealthy people. It’s a film that is meaningful in the abstract but never in any of its particulars.