There can be truth in cynicism, and the awards season brings it out: if you play an historical figure, your chances of winning a major award go way up; if you play an historical figure through thick layers of prostheses, you’re practically a shoe-in. There are a few reasons that they made Darkest Hour: one of them was to make people feel good about a simpler time which grows ever rosier with the passage of years; another was as an award delivery system for Gary Oldman. Ultimately, that’s what Darkest Hour is: a showcase for Oldman, far more than a film —something that one might not have expected from director Joe Wright… before he made Pan. You stop being able to choose your films after a time.
In May 1940, Winston Churchill (Oldman, The Hitman’s Bodyguard) is appointed Prime Minister of Britain. As Nazi forces begin to encroach on the British troops in France, Churchill must decide whether to attempt negotiations with Hitler, or continue on the course of war.
The main thing that anyone will talk about in relation to Darkest Hour is Oldman’s performance: labouring under half his weight in prosthetics and operating in a voice that sounds like a caricature — because, at this point, Churchill’s iconography has become a parody of itself. The performance is so transformative that you can almost forget that Oldman is in there, but periodically the man himself will peep out from behind those eyes, and the illusion is lost. Despite that, Oldman is committed, and he has to carry the movie, because the rest of it can’t approach his work.
Wright, who has made several handsome movies in the past — including another World War II film in Atonement — does not bring many of his considerable visual talents to bear on screen. The go-to shot in this movie is to pull out into an aerial shot of London, or the battlefields of France. It looks nice once or twice, but it turns out to be almost the only trick Wright exercises. There are a couple of other impressive shots — key among them a phone call Churchill takes in his communication bunker — but Darkest Hour is constructed mostly in a workmanlike fashion.
Writer Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything) based his screenplay on heavy research, Churchill’s speeches on record, and fan-fiction wish-fulfilment. McCarten’s Churchill is always “on”, throwing witticisms about with abandon. This is most egregious in the scenes Churchill shares with his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas, The Party), which embody many of the film’s problems with its own cuteness. Worse than that is when McCarten tries for mawkishness, as in a sequence of Churchill communing with the common man. Everything about this scene is wrong, and its positioning so close to the climax takes a lot of the thunder out of what is supposed to be one of the defining speeches of Churchill’s career.
Darkest Hour is the sort of movie that has not only been done many times before, but one where you know every beat, and the ones that you don’t stand out so poorly that whatever ring of truth that they have are compromised. Ultimately, if you want to hear Churchill talking about fighting them on the beaches, you could just watch Dunkirk again — Oldman’s performance is literally transformative, but Darkest Hour is just another pedestrian biopic.
Darkest Hour opened in Australian cinemas on January 11, 2018.
Directed by: Joe Wright.
Starring: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ronald Pickup and Ben Mendelsohn.