Darkest Hour, 2017.
Directed by Joe Wright.
Starring Gary Oldman, Kristen Scott Thomas, Lily James, and Ben Mendelsohn.
Chronicling a pivotal period in World War II, Joe Wright’s biopic pitches Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) amongst warring politicians and nations, as he wrestles with the decision to fight Adolf Hitler against insurmountable odds.
The thought of another awards season biopic, especially one with the omnipresent figure of Winston Churchill as its focus, following Michael Gambon (Churchill’s Secret) and Brian Cox’s (Churchill) recent portrayals, is enough to make you slump in your seat like a minor backbencher.
However, Darkest Hour brings some major players to the strategic planning table; the awards buzz garnered by Gary Oldman’s prosthetic heavy performance as one corner of Parliament Square, and in its director, Joe Wright, a filmmaker whose unique visual DNA is woven into every one of his movies. Which makes it all the more disappointing to report that Darkest Hour is a bit like watching the House of Commons live stream, when almost everyone has already retreated to their second property.
Setting the scene, Wright’s film begins promisingly, with some flashy editing techniques that would feel out of place in your standard historical picture. Sadly, such creativity is ironed out as the film progresses, with very little of the flourishes and embellishments that made Atonement, Hanna, and even the unfairly maligned Pan, such refreshing visual antidotes. There’s the odd birds eye view of battlefields, we know Wright can shoot them like few others, and a wonderful moment in which a young boy frames a plane through his fingers, but on the whole the film remains, much like its subject matter, rather stoic.
Perhaps such a screen consuming performance as Oldman gives deserves the reverence of a suitably passive lens? His Churchill is a recognisable one, amusingly introduced in a similar fashion to Aragorn in Fellowship of the Ring, such myth-making mystique, and the grandeur of this belligerent brute soon gives way to buffoonery and foot-in-mouth comedy. Telling Ben Mendelsohn’s King George VI (largely wasted) “I nap at 4” when organizing their weekly meeting, or the rather charming moment in which he’s told by Lily James (also underserved) that the way he uses his V for Victory sign could be construed as offensive. Such scenes are juxtaposed with the awards reel beats; a desperate phone call to President Roosevelt as the lives of thousands of troops hangs in the balance, is essentially one-man-and-a-phone, and it’s undeniably brilliant.
In terms of story, The Theory of Everything writer, Anthony McCarten’s decision to condense the film into a slice of time, a la Michael Mann’s Ali or Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, is a very good one. The weight of this moment in history isn’t diluted by a desire to see a young Churchill playing with toy soldiers for effect. It sensibly focuses on Churchill’s own personal war, with himself, aided by the fantastic Kristen Scott-Thomas as his wife Clemmie, or scheming colleagues, sidelining the battle to a series of frantic discussions or famous speeches.
What Darkest Hour essentially boils down to is a Gary Oldman showcase impression of a character we’ve seen countless times before. If that’s not your thing, then a documentary might be the way to go.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★