8. Darkest Hour (2017)
Following Pan’s stunningly bad performance at the box office, Wright turned to a small-scale drama about one of history’s most divisive political figures, Winston Churchill. Darkest Hour recounts the early days of WWII, from Winston’s appointment as Prime Minister to the evacuation of Dunkirk. Throughout the film, Churchill and his war cabinet argue about whether to negotiate peace with Hitler or fight back.
Darkest Hour is a competent biopic, although its inability to grapple with Churchill’s complicated legacy is certainly its downfall. Wright seems to skirt around Churchill’s more questionable choices, only mentioning his failures in passing. While the first half of the film tries to balance the scales, it completely gives up half way through, instead favoring an obvious pro-war stance. In trying to be inspiring, Wright sidesteps any kind of nuance. There is a scene set in a tube station that feels especially hollow and patronizing.
Darkest Hour is held together by a thread, that thread being Gary Oldman’s performance, which won him the Oscar for Best Actor. Despite the prosthetics, Oldman offers a rather human performance. Aside from Oldman’s efforts, Darkest Hour feels run-of-the-mill and offers nothing compelling to think about once it ends.
7. The Soloist (2009)
The Soloist, starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr, tells the true story of Nathaniel Ayers (Foxx), a gifted musician who becomes homeless following a mental health crisis, and L.A Times columnist, Steven Lopez (Downey Jr), who becomes his friend and shares his story with the world.
The movie is probably the least stylized of all of Wright’s work and, like Darkest Hour, hinges on the lead performances of Foxx and Downey Jr. But, unlike Darkest Hour, Wright doesn’t let his more flowery impulses get in the way of his characters.
Downey Jr, who feels as stripped down as Wright, offers an incredibly emotional portrait of a man struggling to find hope and redemption in an increasingly hopeless Los Angeles circa 2005. But it is Jamie Foxx who steals every scene he’s in, and it is worth watching simply because of how great he is.
The Soloist does suffer from a lack of narrative focus, something that seems to be a particular weakness of Wright’s. The film feels emotionally distant from its characters, despite the best efforts of the actors, and leaves you not quite knowing how to feel. The film is based on Steve Lopez’s book, but the script would have benefited from delving deeper into Ayers and his life. The scenes recounting his childhood, acceptance into Julliard, and eventual homelessness due to mental health struggles, are the best scenes in the film. There should have been more of them.
The Soloist is a compelling drama that is at its best when showcasing the talents of Robert Downey Jr and Jamie Foxx, but lacks the depth needed to present these contributions in the best light.
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6. Cyrano (2021)
Cyrano, based on Erica Schmidt’s stage musical of the same name, which was adapted from the classic 1897 play, “Cyrano de Bergerac”, by Edmond Rostand, is a lush and tragic romance that doesn’t quite know how to be a musical.
The film tells the tale of Cyrano, played by the fabulous Peter Dinklage, a cadet and poet who, due to his insecurities over his appearance, harbors a deep love for his oldest friend, Roxanne (Haley Bennett). But before Cyrano can profess this love, Roxanne announces that she is in love with another, a new recruit named Christian Neuvillette (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). When Roxanne tells Cyrano that she wants Christian to write to her, but Christian admits he’s terrible with words, Cyrano agrees to write for him. This deception unleashes a chain of events that end with tragic consequences.
Peter Dinklage is a star and this movie recognizes his potential as a great romantic lead. However, his chemistry with Bennett is sorely lacking, as is Bennett’s chemistry with Harrison. While there are certainly sparks of passion, the love triangle is never fully believable. Comparing this to the tragic love story at the heart of Atonement, Cyrano pales in comparison.
While Dinklage has an immense screen presence, his singing ability is lacking. Bennett and Harrison are not much better, and it’s their inability to act through their songs that makes each musical number painful to get through. The music itself doesn’t help, as it’s often slow and anti-climatic, and Wright’s camera movements and blocking are similarly unenthusiastic.
Cyrano is, however, fun to look at most of the time. The costumes and set design are a welcomed return to form for Joe Wright and it’s in this fantasy of color and light that his direction seems most at home. His decision to shift the setting from Paris in 1640 to some unknown time in roughly the 18th century isn’t so good. There is a universality to the specific, and the movie lacks the kind of world building that makes a story feel real and grounded.
All in all, Cyrano has moments where it is truly magical, but it fails to stick the landing.