The feeling that can best describe the 124 minute experience of Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour is uneven. Carried almost entirely by a tour de force performance from Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour is the backstory of Winston Churchill’s ascension to Prime Minister during World War 2.
Oldman, who will most likely win Best Actor for his performance here, is wonderful: bullish, droll, and full of attitude. He carries the movie briskly, talking his way through scenes with his wife or his secretary. Some of the film’s best scenes are with Churchill and his wife Clemmie (Kristin Scott Thomas) a tenderness on display that attempts to show Winston’s humanist side.
The speeches feel powerful and grand but the film seems to rely on them for dramatic sweep and it fails to register on substance. Aesthetically, I have a really big problem with how the movie looks, bathed in total darkness and white light simultaneously. I can only assume Wright’s aesthetic choice is to make it look like a modern day black and white war movie, but beyond that I’m puzzled at his choices.
The film opens with the election of Churchill by parliament through the support of King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn). As Prime Minister, Churchill promises to fight back relentlessly against the German forces, much to the disapproval of Parliament. There’s a consistent recurring theme of Churchill reassuring the public and giving the appearance of relentless belief and bravado while having visibly self doubting when in private. The film suggests that he doubted himself as much as he gave the outward showing of total confidence.
There are times where I wish the camera spent more time with the characters and in the environment, showing the people of London and how much they loved the man. Churchill was a deeply populist figure in England and that could have added such a rich level of detail. I wish that Darkest Hour wasn’t in such a hurry to tell it’s story. There is a notable lack of atmosphere in the film, some exterior shots, but sparse. Even the bombing scenes shown are seemingly in a big hurry to get over with, lacking style or effect, it’s not a film of visual spectacle. It seems to favor it’s lighting scheme and cinematography more than actual immersion.
Kristin Scott Thomas is wonderful as Clemmie, she doesn’t take any of Winston’s crap when he’s being a terror to his secretary (Lily James). She’s tough, sensible, and funny. She’s the rock of support that he needs in those private self doubting moments. She adds a level of sophistication to Oldman’s Churchill. Another selection of very well executed scenes are with Churchill and Halifax (Stephen Dillane). There is a ferocious back and forth between the two men at one point that definitely infuses the scene with a palpable electricity. I enjoyed how their relationship ebbed and flowed from the start of the movie to the end, the politics always shaping how they approach one another.
From here the plot carries the movie, never leaving Oldman, executing perfectly his role as Winston Churchill, rousing speeches and all. Darkest Hour didn’t totally work for me, despite the positive aspects that I’ve talked about in my review it didn’t move me much or marvel with cinematic magic. The acting is very good and quite entertaining as the movie really relies on Gary Oldman becoming Winston Churchill. There are moments where the ghost of Count Dracula comes through the facial prosthetics, and I’m reminded how many times Oldman has perfected such specific characters. The stakes are never felt for me, I never feel like what is on the screen is something in motion but an actual fond re-creation. A loving and admiring look at one of history’s great heroes. In the end Churchill saves England from destruction and we get to revel in the feel good nature of looking back with 20/20 vision. All of this adds up to a film that doesn’t really work, the narrative structure falls flat and is constantly reliant on Oldman’s performance.
The biggest criticism of Joe Wright’s film is that the attempt at mood and atmosphere actually weigh down the film, acting almost as a distraction from it’s main focus. Darkest Hour is a flawed but entertaining biopic of Winston Churchill, who’s acting performances are much greater than the sum of it’s parts.