September 14, 2017

SHOWBUZZDAILY Toronto Film Festival Reviews: “Darkest Hour” & “Mudbound”


DARKEST HOUR (Focus/Universal – Nov. 22):  A shameless piece of rabble-rousing Hollywood biography, directed by Joe Wright and written by Anthony McCarten, and served hot on a platter to Oscar voters.  The subject is Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman), and the terrain is the first few weeks of his tenure as Prime Minister, doubted by just about everyone–including King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn)–except loving wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), as he watched the British war effort head for disaster.  Attentive moviegoers already know thanks to Christopher Nolan’s summer history lesson that there was a serious danger of most of the British armed forces being captured by the Germans at Dunkirk; Darkest Hour fills in the blanks about what was going on in London.  As the script presents it, Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) and Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) were all but ready to sign over Great Britain to Hitler, and only the support of the common people, starting with his tremulous but stout-hearted new secretary (Lily James), shook Churchill out of his own depression and into the hero history knows him to be.  (In the film’s borderline hilarious centerpiece sequence, Churchill boards a London tube to bond with the middle class, including a black man who finishes Churchill’s Shakespeare quote for him.)  This stuff brings movie biography back to where it was in the days of The Life of Emile Zola, but it’s no less enjoyable for that.  Oldman loads on the prosthetics and somehow manages to make one of the most dramatic men of the 20th century even more dramatic.  Wright, working with cinematography Bruno Delbonnel and production designer Sarah Greenwood, delivers a gorgeous facsimile of history, and editor Valerio Bonelli and composer Dario Marianelli put their feet on the gas pedal and don’t let up.  Wright, McCarten and the cast have no regard for nuance; somehow, they turn Winston Churchill into the lead of a Frank Capra movie.

MUDBOUND (Netflix – November 17):  Dee Rees’s saga (written with Virgil Williams, based on Hillary Jordan’s novel) of two Mississippi families during and after World War II begins with 90 minutes of slow, incremental storytelling.  Virtually every major character gets a turn at narration, as we follow the white McAllans, led by Henry (Jason Clarke), as he drags his delicate wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) and racist father Pappy (Jonathan Banks) from their comfortable home in Memphis to a backwater farm where the black sharecroppers are the Jacksons, Hap (Rob Morgan) and Florence (Mary J. Blige).  The structure is episodic, and we see the McAllens sometimes treat the Jacksons with kindness (when Laura is taking the lead), but more often with disregard from Henry or pure hatred from Pappy.  After the war ends, the story comes into focus with a final 45-minute section triggered by the return from Europe of Henry’s brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), and Hap’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell).  Jamie tries to tame his PTSD with alcohol, while the racism of his hometown strikes Ronsel more deeply after the comparative freedom of Europe, and the two men bond in their misery.  It’s a dangerous friendship for the 1940s south, and it ends with sickening violence.  The pieces of Mudbound don’t quite add up.  Despite the 135-minute length, and the narration giving every character a voice, the people aside from Jamie and Ronsel are mostly depicted in superficial ways, and the shifts in tone from almost Malick-ish meandering to shocking aren’t smoothly handled.  Still, there’s no question that the material puts a powerful hold on the viewer, and Rees’s vision of that farm’s muddy world, via cinematographer Rachel Morrison and production designer David J. Bomba, is masterfully realized.  Mudbound feels like it could have been a brilliantly discursive 8-hour series, or a gripping 90 minutes, but it’s stuck in between.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."