The Darkest Hour – A reinvention of the war film genre

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Image Credit: Universal Studies

World War 2 is without question the most documented event in cinematic history. In the 73 years since the Allies defeated the evil Hitler (who is always inexplicably played by a British actor) and his Nazi army there have been almost 5,000 movies made about the event, in fact if you were to try to watch every World War 2 film back to back it would take you almost a full year to get from The Great Appeal to Director Joe Wright’s Latest feature: Darkest Hour.

The newest edition to this momentous catalogue of films was quite a surprise. A character driven drama focusing more on the politics of war and the consequences of fighting for freedom instead of a dull action movie about a band of brothers banding about and banding together against the evil Germans/Japanese. It was, in one word: refreshing. The constant tension and unrelenting pace of this film drives home a crushing sense of urgency as our lead character Winston Churchill (played spectacularly by Gary Oldman) navigates the tricky waters of British politics trying to prepare for the largest maritime evacuation ever attempted (Dunkirk). All whilst trying to prevent his ousting from the government by Stephen Dillane’s Viscount Halifax who truly believes that you can indeed “reason with a tiger while it’s head is in your mouth.”

Perhaps the biggest achievement of this film is its portrayal of Winston Churchill as a man who is not the well regarded war hero he is often viewed as today. This Churchill is a man who was generally detested by his party, the king and a great measure of the British public. However by showing Churchill as the deeply flawed character he was, the film convinces you to empathise with his struggle and hope that he can overcome these difficulties to achieve his goal in the end. This is a little trick more talented writers use called “good writing” something that has been in staggeringly short supply throughout many recent war films.

DARKEST HOUR

Gary Oldman plays Winston Churchill | Image Credit: Focus Features

 

The film’s focus on character means that there is very little actual war shown throughout the film. This creates more emotional weight when more traditional war imagery is shown as well as often acting as punctuation for previous scenes. A question mark when our characters ask “will our men be able to fend off the Germans at Calais?” and a full stop when we find out they can’t. This film is more The King’s Speech than Saving Private Ryan and it is so much better because of it.

Despite this the writing does become a little overly sentimental at times such as the repetitive scenes between Churchill and his wife. The cinematography varies wildly from sharp and deliberate with some interesting use of black or harsh colour to effectively show us Churchill’s constant inner struggle, to flat, desaturated and boring. There is also some abysmal CGI which thankfully is used sparingly but still ruins what should have been an emotional moment.

In recent years it has been a generally held belief among cynical people such as myself that war movies -particularly WW2 movies- have changed very little since their creation. Essentially boiling down to a flick that is part white American male lead action movie and part pro war propaganda. You only need to watch Tarantino’s 2009 film Inglorious Basterds with it’s over the top action and subversion of the many torrid and tired out tropes that plague the genre to understand why it is hard to get excited by yet another film about the “glorious” second world war. Thankfully films like Darkest Hour show us that the subject matter of a film does not define its quality and I can only hope that this is a new turning point for war films.

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  1. […] Cameron Storer is joined by our entertainment reporter Alex Heron to discuss Joe Wright’s latest blockbuster The Darkest Hour. […]

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