“Darkest Hour cheerily pads its film with a white cast, setting aside just one speaking role for a non-white actor.”
Title: Darkest Hour (2017)
Director: Joe Wright 👨🏼🇬🇧
Writer: Anthony McCarten 👨🏼🇳🇿
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Darkest Hour builds its universe on the shoulders of beautiful cinematography: lighting, framing, and camerawork all tag team to create dramatic tension. Unfortunately, the writing does little to meet it halfway.
Long stretches of soliloquy flounder from scene to scene in a mess of self-important platitudes about the power of oratory, or about how patriotism is good, and about how Hitler is bad. And then it repeats itself like a wash cycle, over and over again.
The result is an eye-rolling affair that does a disservice to a fascinating piece of history. This hagiographic soup obscures any criticism of Winston Churchill, choosing instead to burnish the reputations of both the former British Prime Minister and the actor who plays him, Gary Oldman.
Were I not already soured on a film that demands an utterly incurious audience, the simple fact of both Churchill and Oldman being on record for anti-Semitic and racist remarks makes it impossible to blithely cheer for either man. But while I’ll discuss its social failings in more detail below, on technical merit alone I still couldn’t recommend Darkest Hour. It’s a snoozefest.
I wish I’d spent these hours on a documentary instead, for Churchill’s legacy is interesting enough without the golden halo McCarten and Wright have retrofitted around this rightfully controversial figure.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? NOPE
Women are absent from this film but for Churchill’s typist, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), and Churchill’s wife, Clemmie (Kristin Scott Thomas).
Layton is used as a proxy for the audience: a voyeur, who is timid and subservient. She has no backstory beyond what Churchill wants to know, and only when it’s relevant to his own interests.
Clemmie serves the undignified role of being the adoring housewife whose entire life has been subsumed by that of her husband’s. Sure, she chides him for his tantrums and makes put-upon faces when he’s being an especial dick, such as when she discovers they’re flat broke. But all it takes is a single joke and she breaks, forgiving him each time with an indulgent smile.
Beyond these flat roles, women are missing altogether. Darkest Hour is, however, packed to the gills with roles reserved exclusively for one particular demographic:
Every single one of those actors received a paycheck for a job solely reserved for a white male. So the next time your local MRA pipes up about men losing jobs to political correctness, just point them to Darkest Hour or its soul twin, Dunkirk, and let them take solace in the fact that gender and racial parity remain a distant reality.
As mentioned above, Darkest Hour cheerily pads its film with a white cast, setting aside just one speaking role for a non-white actor. Marcus Peters, played by Ade Haastrup, appears in one of the film’s more sycophantic scenes wherein Churchill takes to the London Underground to talk to plebes, kissing hands and shaking babies as they all watch on adoringly.
One of these plebes is Marcus, who appears as an accented immigrant. In a wholly unnecessary attempt to show wokeness in what is a decidedly un-woke film, the scene alludes to him dating a white woman. The moment comes off as a self-congratulatory pat on the back for being better on racial tolerance than Nazi Germany, and it’s about as flippant on the topic as you would expect from a script that never included this relationship in the first place.
Furthermore, the lighting on Haastrup is atrocious, instantly reminding me of something Ava DuVernay once mentioned to BuzzFeed on the character of Chalky White from Boardwalk Empire. "I don't appreciate seeing black folks that are unlit,” she sighs, “and that doesn't mean that he has to be over-lit. It means that's a dark brother...you don't automatically light for the lighter-skinned person and leave him in shadow."
Finally, in a nod to real-life context, I do understand that London in 1940 was overwhelmingly white, making the racial homogeneity of Darkest Hour historically accurate. But the bigger problem lies in our societal fascination with white male exceptionalism. Why—and why, and why—does Hollywood continue to center white stories that bar women and people of color from entry? How is this not a direct violation of equal employment laws passed in the 1960s and 70s?
Mediaversity Grade: F 1.50/5
Look, I’m not saying we shouldn’t make films about Winston Churchill, or historical figures like him. But we shouldn’t be fawning over them uncritically, or canonizing actors like Gary Oldman in their makings. At a time when Hollywood is rightfully scrutinizing the industry-wide gatekeeping of women, people of color, and other marginalized groups, I don't understand why we keep the old boys' club so perfectly intact during awards season.
“It's the hypocrisy of it that drives me crazy,” Oldman says himself. And he’s right. We can’t only hold some men accountable for their actions, then turn around and lavish Kirk Douglas or James Franco with trophies and flattery.
So let’s stop being hypocrites. Let’s deride Darkest Hour for being the out-of-touch dinosaur that it is, and let’s spend our money on a movie that asks the hard questions, or celebrates marginalized groups.
Or, at the very least, let’s spend our money on a movie that isn’t so damned boring.