I’ll be honest, at this point, when it comes to cinematic themes, I’ve got major Second World War fatigue. As a Brit, that might be sacrilege to say, but over the last couple of years, a combination of Dunkirk, Their Finest, and even things like The Zookeeper’s Wife and Allied, have given me enough 1940s period aesthetic and wartime drama to last me at least as long as the war in question. In fact, I deliberately passed on 2016’s Churchill, knowing full well that Darkest Hour was on the horizon and that Gary Oldman’s performance was set to be an inevitable awards season frontrunner. Having just picked up the Golden Globe for Best Actor, it seems as though my decision was justified.
Darkest Hour tells the story of Winston Churchill’s (Gary Oldman) rise to Prime Minister of the United Kingdom amidst the backdrop of the ever increasing and rampant threat of Hitler’s Germany, tearing through Western Europe and in the process of pushing the remainder of the British army in to the sea at Dunkirk. Rather than a full life biopic, the film focuses only on a few weeks in 1940, leading up the infamous evacuation of Dunkirk beach, and whilst Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece detailed events from the perspective of the soldiers, Darkest Hour focuses on the trails and tribulations occurring simultaneously in Downing Street. Facing rebellion and opposition from members of his own party but buoyed by the support of wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) and King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) himself, the narrative proceeds as a high stakes tug of war between negotiating peace terms with Hitler or going full steam ahead in to nation saving warfare. Spoiler alert, Hitler and his peace terms can shove it.
The thing is, as important as this period is and as rich as the history is, the only truly noteworthy aspect of Darkest Hour is, you won’t be surprised to hear, Gary Oldman’s performance. Aside from the inevitable patriotic swellings one experiences with each memorable speech, the picture isn’t a particularly enjoyable one to look at or even to listen to for the most part. The palate is filled with blacks and greys, stuck inside underground bunkers and dark palace rooms, and the sustained thread of tension between Churchill and his opposition manifests mostly in shouting. The same shouting match over and over again in various differently worded ways. The crux of the matter is that thanks to numerous depictions before and years worth of history lessons, more viewers than not are going to know the ins and outs of this particular tale, and Darkest Hour Just doesn’t do enough in the way of providing extra entertainment or a fresh take on things to liven it up or make it more worth while.
There’s no doubting that fans of the wartime genre will find multiple things to like, even love, but I can’t get away from the view that the films feels like it is always waiting for the classic ‘Churchill moments’, with very little substance when it comes to everything else outside of those historical flash points.
So, let’s get to it, shall we? Gary Oldman is great, fantastic even. He might not strike the strongest resemblance to the British icon compared to others who have taken on the role before, but there is something in the command of his voice and in the total commitment to physicality that makes it a completely authentic feeling, transformative performance. There is no doubt that Oldman carries the film, and he may very well end up picking up the Academy Award in a month or so, but from a personal point of view, the likes of Timothee Chalamet and Daniel Day-Lewis have done much more interesting work in the past year.
Kristin Scott Thomas brings some pleasing dashes of colour to proceedings as the chirpy, equally headstrong Clementine Churchill, but even then her physical aesthetic is one plagued with blacks, whites and greys. Scott Thomas is a more than worthy sparring partner for Oldman’s Churchill, and the sequences of quiet banter, away from the tense war rooms, that they share, provide some of the most enjoyable moments of the movie.
Lily James as Elizabeth Layton acts as something go an audience surrogate for the viewer, the young secretary who is thrown in to the weird and wonderful world of the Churchill regime. Her character had definite promise and her performance is an accomplished one, but it almost feels like a more important subplot involving Elizabeth was intended but never included in the the final cut. Again, she shares some great tension breaking and heartwarming scenes with Oldman, but there is a definite feeling of unfinished business for her character as the credits roll.
Overall, Darkest Hour is a solid but not sensational historical drama that, very much The Iron Lady, is elevated about its stations by a standout performance. Just as the Margaret Thatcher biopic was for Meryl Streep, it is a showcase for Gary Oldman to impress on all fronts, but outside of his potentially Oscar winning performance, the film is rather more average than everyone hoped it would be. Worth a watch for I’m sure what will become the defining moment of Oldman’s esteemed career, but certainly not one that knocks it out of the park in every single department.