Home > Reviews > DARKEST HOUR – Dario Marianelli

DARKEST HOUR – Dario Marianelli

December 22, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

There are few twentieth century political and military leaders as respected and admired as Sir Winston Churchill. An army officer, Nobel prize winning writer, and artist, he served two terms as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, from 1940 to 1945, and again from 1951 to 1955. He, along with his comrades Josef Stalin and Franklin Roosevelt, led the Allies to victory in World War II, and in so doing became one of the most well-known and recognizable figures in the world, with his iconic hat, jowls, and cigar. As an orator, he was patriotic and inspirational, and several of his most famous speeches – “we shall fight them on the beaches,” “never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few” – are legendary. But he was also a complex, conflicted man, who failed to be as effective a governor in peacetime as he was in war. He has been portrayed on film many times over the years, but the performance given by actor Gary Oldman in director Joe Wright’s film Darkest Hour, may be the most acclaimed to date.

Much like 2017’s other Churchill film, in which he was played by Brian Cox, Darkest Hour is not a comprehensive biopic, but instead looks at the key moments of Churchill’s life: the outbreak of World War II, Churchill replacing Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister, his bullish response to Hitler’s seemingly unstoppable Nazi invasion of Western Europe, the military events at Dunkirk, and his efforts to gain the trust of both the British public and a skeptical monarch. In addition to Oldman in the leading role, the film stars Kristin Scott-Thomas as Churchill’s long-suffering wife Clementine Hozier, Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI, and Game of Thrones’s Stephen Dillane as the foreign secretary Viscount Halifax.

The score for Darkest Hour is by Anglo-Italian composer Dario Marianelli, who won an Oscar in 2007 for scoring Joe Wright’s previous WWII-set film, Atonement, and has also scored films such as Pride & Prejudice and Anna Karenina for the director. Like most of Marianelli’s scores, Darkest Hour is highly classical, making use of a moderately-sized symphony orchestra, and with special emphasis on piano solos performed by Icelandic virtuoso concert pianist Vikingur Ólafsson. However, unlike most of Marianelli’s more popular works, Darkest Hour is more concerned with rhythm and texture than clear, obvious themes. There is an 8-note main Churchill theme which appears in the opening cue, “Prelude,” and which re-occurs several times throughout the score, most notably in the “The War Rooms” and the excellent finale “We Shall Fight,” but beyond this one idea the score falls short a little in that respect.

However, what it lacks in thematic power, it more than makes up for in technical excellence and fast, fluid orchestration. The way Marianelli uses his ensemble here reminds me very much of Alexandre Desplat, and I’m not just talking about the Birth-like percussion writing. Everything is quick, nimble, and precise, with rhythmic passages and little repeated cells of music moving around from strings to brass to woodwinds, constantly shifting, constantly moving. Conceptually, one could say that this is Marianelli’s way of depicting Churchill’s ever-readiness, his quick wit, and the way he moved through the political minefields of the time, juggling not only the King and his fellow members of Parliament, but also the public and the press, and his allies in the United States and Russia, as well as the looming threat of Hitler on the European mainland.

Weaving its way through all of this is Ólafsson’s omnipresent piano, which flits in and out of the rest of the orchestra, sometimes taking the lead, sometimes content to provide the rhythm and tempo. It opens the score on its own in the aforementioned “Prelude,” initially coming across as solemn and intimate, but gradually becoming busier and more energetic as it develops, and incorporating some surprisingly aggressive low-end chords. In “Where Is Winston?” the full orchestra joins in, presenting some excellent passages for surging strings and heavy timpanis, as well as some superb brass writing in the second half, which fades in and out in a manner that reminds me of Don Davis.

Thereafter, the score stays mostly within this defined comfort zone of repeated string patterns, low brasses, hooting woodwinds, plucked harps, and rhythmic percussion, with the piano adding a continual touch of class and elegance. Several cues stand out as being particularly noteworthy, beginning with “Full English,” which is a little lighter, almost playful, with mischievous pizzicato strings, lithe, cheeky trumpets and fluttering flutes. “I Wouldn’t Trust Him with My Bicycle” revisits these ideas with a slightly more serious tone in the string and oboe writing. Later, “Winston and George” is a witty, almost comedic dance for strings, overlaid with shrewdly florid piano and woodwind writing that cascades and tumbles and perfectly conveys the increasingly difficult meetings between Prime Minister and King, a fumbling of social graces in the face of building pressure from the continent

“First Speech to the Commons” is initially nervous and fidgety, making use of harp glissandi and pizzicato strings, but it gradually builds in power and immediacy as the rest of the orchestra joins in, and eventually it adopts a more confident and confrontational tone. “The War Rooms” has an appropriately militaristic feel, with rapped snares, aggressive brass and woodwind writing, and syncopated piano harmonies underpinning one of the most prominent performances of Churchill’s theme. Similarly, “Radio Broadcast is deadly serious, featuring stark cello chords, but builds to a rousing conclusion with heavier percussion writing and throaty brass rasps that feel determined, imposing, and authoritative. Several subsequent cues continue in this mode of highly rhythmic, urgent, driving music that conveys Churchill’s determination to meet Hitler’s challenge; “History Is Listening,” “Dynamo,” and “We Must Prepare for Imminent Invasion” all seek to convey the palpable tension in and around Westminster on those fateful days.

“Just Before the Dawn” is a nervous and edgy piece augmented by a siren-like string wash, undulating textures, while Marianelli’s conclusive cues celebrate the fearlessness of Churchill’s resolve. In “District Line, East, One Stop,” the respect Churchill earns from the British public as he takes a short tube ride comes across in a series of hopeful, but slightly abstract piano and harp textures, underpinned by a warm undercurrent of cellos. It becomes bold, defiant, almost celebratory by its conclusion, and leads perfectly into the final cue, “We Shall Fight,” which gives Churchill’s most rousing speech a sense of dignified grandeur. This final cue is a superb mix of the score’s most important ideas, including a superb showcase for Ólafsson’s piano, and gradually rises to a stirring end over course of 7 mins, eventually concluding with a final reprise of the urgent, thrusting string and piano figures from the second cue, underpinned with Churchill’s theme.

However, I can certainly see that a major criticism of the score will be its lack of a truly standout main theme. In listening to Darkest Hour one gets a sense that Joe Wright asked Marianelli to be more reserved, and stay a little more in the background than he usually does, so as not to overwhelm Churchill’s story with overly ostentatious or patriotic Elgarian music, and some may consider this to be a missed opportunity to write something grand. However, I personally think that Marianelli judged it right; Churchill was such an immense figure – in stature, in personality, in importance, and in legacy – that it would have been very easy to musically deify him, and that’s not what Wright wanted. In private, Churchill often confided his doubts and fears to his wife, and it is in those moments that his true strength is revealed; Marianelli’s job was to bring those elements out without crossing the line into something that undermined him or made him seem weak. That musical balancing act – determination and resolve combined with self doubt – is a difficult one to gauge, but I think Marianelli succeeded.

Something that also occurred to me while I was writing this review is the fact that Darkest Hour provides exactly the right amount of historical context that was missing from Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk, and that I would enjoy an edited version of these two films spliced together immensely – the political and social elements of Wright’s film, juxtaposed with the immediacy of Nolan’s war, would really do justice to the scope and historical importance of those few weeks on the beaches of northern France. But I digress; in a year where the British experience of World War II has been a recurring theme at the box office, Darkest Hour provides for me the most well-rounded and musically interesting take on the topic.

Buy the Darkest Hour soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Prelude (2:25)
  • Where Is Winston? (2:43)
  • Full English (1:59)
  • A Telegram from the Palace (1:43)
  • One of Them (1:33)
  • Winston and George (3:15)
  • First Speech to the Commons (3:36)
  • The War Rooms (2:45)
  • From the Air (1:25)
  • I Wouldn’t Trust Him with My Bicycle (1:57)
  • Radio Broadcast (3:05)
  • History Is Listening (2:34)
  • An Ultimatum (1:28)
  • Dynamo (2:37)
  • We Must Prepare for Imminent Invasion (3:03)
  • The Words Won’t Come (2:17)
  • Just Before the Dawn (2:14)
  • District Line, East, One Stop (3:52)
  • We Shall Fight (7:26)

Running Time: 52 minutes 06 seconds

Deutsche Grammophon (2017)

Music composed and conducted by Dario Marianelli. Orchestrations by Dario Marianelli and Geoff Alexander. Featured musical soloist Vikingur Ólafsson. Recorded and mixed by Nick Wollage. Edited by Mark Willsher. Album produced by Dario Marianelli.

  1. January 28, 2018 at 4:52 pm

    Early in the film there was a beautiful ensemble featuring bassoon. Which track features this? Is the sheet music available?

  1. February 1, 2018 at 10:00 am
  2. February 2, 2018 at 5:12 pm

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