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Oscar Awards 2018: Darkest Hour “never gives in” to standards of the genre

Winston+Churchill+delivers+a+passionate+speech+to+Parliament+to+convince+them+to+agree+to+continue+fighting+the+Nazis.
Winston Churchill delivers a passionate speech to Parliament to convince them to agree to continue fighting the Nazis.

Winston Churchill delivers a passionate speech to Parliament to convince them to agree to continue fighting the Nazis.

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Winston Churchill delivers a passionate speech to Parliament to convince them to agree to continue fighting the Nazis.

by Emily Reed, Co-editor-in-chief

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Almost every Oscars best picture pool has its token historical biographical piece that is structured in largely the same way as its predecessor and therefore, not particularly remarkable. As films go, they’re enjoyable, informative, and often well-shot, but, they’re not groundbreaking.

However, Darkest Hour sets out to redefine the quintessential “historical biography” genre by offering audiences a movie that is not only visually stunning, but with a compelling story that covers all facets of Winston Churchill’s character AND the first month of his wartime tenure as Prime Minister.

Turbulent is a word that doesn’t even begin to describe Churchill’s first month in office. In May 1940, Churchill has to decide to either negotiate peace with Nazis or continue fighting against them. Either choice had enormous ramifications on the lives and morale of the British people and regardless, people were not going to be happy with his decision.

Churchill decides to continue the fight which leads him to coin the phrase, “never give up, never give in.” Against all odds, Churchill convinces the public and the undecided king to support his motion which leads to the Battle of Dunkirk and the eventual failure of the Nazis to invade Britain.

Capturing the essence of this monumental leader was no simple task but because of Jacqueline Durran’s exquisite, period accurate costume design and Kazuhiro Tsuji, David Malinowski, and Lucy Sibbick’s makeup prowess, Gary Oldman was physically transformed into Churchill. Then, Oldman spent a year studying Churchill’s mannerisms before filming started and was able to give a performance worthy of a Best Actor win, in no short thanks to the other artists who were also nominated and deserve a win for their exceptional work.

Gary Oldman revealed on The Graham Norton Show that he went as far to smoke £30,000 worth of cigars on set (about 12 cigars a day) to develop his character as Churchill. He endured nicotine poisoning because of this extreme smoking which forced him to take care of his health during Christmas filming break.  

That dedication showed in his performance. The attention to detail in Churchill’s speech pattern, precise accent, walk, and little hand flourishes was so exact that, at times, I thought Churchill himself was on the screen.

Oldman’s portrayal uncompromisingly shows all aspects of Churchill’s personality as the loudmouth, chronic smoker, and alcoholic who also is willing to fight for what he believes in with his dying breath. Screenwriters usually shy away from exposing the unsavory elements of the historical figure they’re writing about but, viewers see Churchill’s moments of emotional triumph mixed with emotional weakness. On May 26, 1940, Churchill was feeling weary and uncertain. He even contemplated ending the stand off against the Nazis and conceding defeat in a peace treaty.

Then, as illustrated in a particularly moving scene in the movie, he decides to continue standing his ground and earns his nickname as the “British Bulldog.”

While the scene on the Tube train, which Churchill rides for the first time with the British public, is inspiring, it is not historically accurate.

(As an aside, the scene on the Tube was also a chance to showcase the Production Design team’s, made up of Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer, technical skill for which they earned an Oscar nomination. The producers attempted to locate a pre-WWII Tube train with little success. Instead, they settled for second best which was a 1959 Tube Stock Carriage which is very similar to the design from 1938. They obtained the train from the Mangapps Railway Museum and restored it to further resemble a train from 1938.)

Churchill didn’t have a heart-to-heart with the British public and find out they completely support his efforts to stand up for British patriotism; instead, he became reinvigorated by nature of private contemplation. However, showing scenes of someone thinking isn’t cinematically impressive so it is understandable why the director decided to create a scene to symbolize Churchill’s weakness.

Brilliant cinematography is used in this scene to illustrate just how dark, damp, and cold it is in the Underground in parallel to Churchill’s inner turmoil. The camera is manipulated to make the audience feel claustrophobic in the low light and tight corners. Then, when Churchill comes out of the Tube with his revelation, the streets of London are suddenly aglow with light! This is a change from the gradual progression of muted colors turning into shades that occur through the first section of this movie. While this cinematography isn’t revolutionary, it is fitting and beautiful, therefore, Bruno Delbonnel definitely deserved the nomination.

Darkest Hour is a cut above most historical biographical movies because it acknowledges Churchill’s slew of personal and emotional weaknesses. Nevertheless, my only complaint with the film is that I wish it dived in further to the complicated nature of Churchill’s character.

Even though Churchill stood for liberty and freedom within Britain, he didn’t stand for it anywhere else, particularly Britain’s imperial colonies. He believed in imperialism heavily, calling the native Indian people “savages” and he hated Gandhi and the rest of the Indian Independence movement. Sadly, he was also a racist who referred to Palestinians as “barbaric hordes who ate little but camel dung.” Worst of all, he was infamously in favor of using poisonous gas against the “uncivilized tribes” in northwest Asia.

Perhaps the screenwriter thought that this wasn’t relevant information to include in a film solely about Churchill’s first month as prime minister, but, I believe this rather large piece of information should be mentioned. When measuring Churchill’s legacy, this must be taken into account and therefore, it should be incorporated into the film so audience members don’t leave the theater with the wrong impression.

At the end of the day, I am wholeheartedly convinced that Darkest Hour is a step in the right direction for honest historical biographies. I predict that if the movie would have pushed the envelope even further, it would have won the Best Picture award. Instead, I believe the socially relevant film Get Out will win because it took greater chances in screenwriting that struck a chord with audiences and ultimately, the academy.

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About the Writer
Emily Reed, Co-Editor-in-Chief

Emily Reed (@Emily_Jane_Reed) is a member of the Class of 2019 and a fifth semester Journalism student. She enjoys writing poetry, watching black and white...

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Oscar Awards 2018: Darkest Hour “never gives in” to standards of the genre