(On Cable TV, October 2018) After decades of stellar character roles, it seems fitting that Gary Oldman would win his first Oscar for playing none other than Winston Churchill in a biographical film. Focused on the crucial months during which England found itself alone (well, alone with its globe-spanning empire) against the Nazis, Darkest Hour becomes a political thriller in which Churchill had to manoeuvre between the population and the Nazi-appeasing politicians. It’s fact-based without being entirely factual (that wonderful scene about Churchill riding the underground—never happened) yet made with such restraint that we’re led to imbue more credibility to the film than we should. There’s another word for it, of course, and that mythmaking: a deliberate attempt to further shape Churchill’s stature as the English bulldog, providing further Britannia Triumphant material. (There’s been a surprising number of those lately, from King Arthur to the newest iterations of James Bond focused on home territory—I’m thinking there’s a link with Brexit, but I’m not sure what it is yet.) Director Joe Wright seems in his element here, with a high-stakes historical drama and plenty of opportunities for respectable filmmaking. It’s not a bad movie despite the uncomfortable feeling of being manipulated through a very selective vision of history. To be fair, Oldman is very good, and Darkest Hour does manage to inject a lot of drama into historical events. It could have been worse, and if it did get Oldman a much-deserved body-of-work Oscar, then why not?
(Video On-demand, March 2013) Director Joe Wright has always shown tendencies toward stylistic show-boating, and the first half-hour of Anna Karenina is crammed with directorial flourishes as the film moves in-between interior sets and a larger theatrical stage. As a way to freshly present an oft-told story (Tolstoy’s novel has been adapted to the big screen at least 12 times until now), it’s not a bad choice –except that there seems to be little rhyme or reason to the device, and it seems to be half-abandoned as the film progresses. While viewers who like a bit of cinematic flourish may be pleased by the way Wright plays along with conventions, it does obscure the story and turns the film into something it’s not meant to be. It also obscures the good work done by the actors, including Keira Knightley in the titular role and Jude Law as her despairing husband. (Meanwhile, Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s mustache steals the show for none-so-positive reasons.) The costumes are sumptuous and the visuals occasionally evoke a nicely idealized view of 19th century Russian aristocracy, but the self-conscious artificiality of the film’s presentation work at undercutting the impact of those. As a take on familiar material, this 2012 version of Anna Karenina isn’t ugly to look at… but it’s quite a bit abstract when it starts messing with the way movies are presented, and that may not necessarily work at a romantic drama’s advantage.
(In theaters, April 2011) Strange things happen when dramatic directors take on genre filmmaking, not the least being unique takes on genre conventions. Joe Wright is best known for Oscar-baiting dramas such as Atonement and Pride and Prejudice, so to see him take on the tale of a teenage assassin facing down rogue CIA operatives is a bit of a stretch. The end result is definitely unconventional, as Wright tries to reconcile mainstream dramatic techniques with the demands of a genre thriller. Some of the result works well: Wright wisely eschews frantic editing, and one of the film’s highlight is a continuous shot that brilliantly depicts a fight between a character and four antagonists. The film makes effective use of a creepy abandoned park for its climax, and Saoirse Ronan is very good in the title role. Unfortunately, viewers will have to be patient in-between the film’s rewards: Hanna’s pacing is lethargic, deadened by failed attempts at comic relief (never mind Hanna’s “fish out of water” subplot: I kept hoping for the irritating family of tourists to be terminated with extreme prejudice) and sunk by its own self-importance: The plot is slight, simple and inconsequential enough to be silly, except that Wright seems convinced that he’s telling An Important Story. The film splats when it should zip along, and seems to call attention to its own cleverness: not bad as an experiment, but not much of a success as a stand-alone thriller. Much like The Chemical Brother’s unusual score, Hanna is different and sometimes intriguing for what it brings to the standard thriller formula, but it never feels as compelling as straight-up genre entertainment.