Each year, I try to watch every movie nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award before the Oscars ceremony. As I do this, I will write a brief review of each movie, along with a suggestion of what to eat and/or drink to pair with the movie.
I am not the first reviewer to point out how odd it is that two Oscar-nominated films cover the same very specific historical incident: the evacuation of Allied troops from the northern French beach, Dunkirk. While Dunkirk tells the story of the evacuation from the point of view of the military men and civilians sent to save them, Darkest Hour is focused on the political side, especially Winston Churchill’s role.
The most significant buzz surrounding Darkest Hour is Gary Oldman’s physical disappearance into Winston Churchill. Oldman is nominated for Best Actor, and I will be surprised if he doesn’t win. It’s also nominated for Hair and Makeup and I will be very surprised if it doesn’t win. But while the film tells a compelling story, it is really just a vehicle for Oldman and I don’t think it does much more than that. Which is OK! A movie being a vehicle for a good actor does not make a bad movie, but I did leave the theater feeling like I wanted something more.
It’s very difficult to talk about either Dunkirk or Darkest Hour without making a comparison which is probably a disservice to both of them. But, regardless, here’s why I think Dunkirk is the better movie: it is more unique. We have scores of films about important [old, white] men making important decisions about war and politics. And that’s really all Darkest Hour is about. Sure, we also have plenty of movies about men in the trenches, so to speak, but the three-pronged way Nolan approached the evacuation and the way he truly immerses the audience in the action is remarkable.
I think that Darkest Hour is a good movie and I would watch it again. It has a clear narrative structure and builds tension masterfully. I think it would be very hard to watch this movie and not feel stressed out, which is a good thing. But I also think the best parts feel the most forced. The secretary [Lily James] is clearly a narrative tool to allow the audience to get to know Churchill better, especially his softer and more quirky sides. Narrative tools are fine, but this one wasn’t exactly subtle.
The most memorable scene is when Churchill spontaneously boards a London Underground train after disagreeing with his cabinet members about whether to sign a peace deal with Hitler. Once aboard, he interacts with the people in his car and asks if they think, as British citizens, it would be a good idea to enter peace negotiations with Nazi Germany or if they should fight it out. All of the people: men, women, and adorable little girl say they should fight. This mobilizes Churchill enough to refuse to enter into talks with Hitler, they go through with the original evacuation plan, and commit to fighting Nazis.
It’s a good scene, but it’s also a touch too precious. The fact is, history is messy. Far messier than can adequately be covered in a film with a reasonable run time so scenes like this serve to make it into something that’s more easily digestible. But it came across as phony to me, however entertaining and touching it also was.
In addition to the nominations already discussed, Darkest Hour is also nominated for Cinematography, Production Design, and Costume Design for a total of six nominations.
What to make: Since Churchill is always smoking a cigar, you can make pastry cigars. Or just have scotch. Even better if you watch this movie in the morning, make yourself a full breakfast, ignore the breakfast and drink only the scotch. And have the pastry cigar.