Director: Joe Wright Starring: Gary Oldman, Kristen Scott Thomas, Lily James, Ben Mendelsohn, Stephen Dillane Running Time: 125 minutes
When the Bard gets boring, it’s increasingly appealing to distinguished actors to turn to Winston Churchill for their monologue jollies; “we shall fight them on the beaches” being as suitable for performance as anything Shakespeare ever did. Through various films, such noteworthy performers as Albert Finney, our own Brendan Gleeson, Brian Cox last year and um…Christian Slater, have donned the bowler hat, stuck up a V-sign and gotten down to speechifying, and now Gary Oldman picks up that mantle. Unrecognisable in impressive make up, Oldman’s turn in Darkest Hour is being put forth as a showcase for the veteran, a big Oscar-grabbing performance in a film that looks, as many do, back at Britain’s ‘darkest hour’ also in some ways as its finest. Let’s not forget, there was literally a film about this exact same time-period titled Their Finest released just last year. Rarely, if ever, do films of this type want to engage with Churchill the racist, the Churchill that sent soldiers into Tonypandy or helped starve India, or set up the Black and Tans and Darkest Hour is no exception, an effort to rouse and court applause and though it’s definitely well-made enough to receive that in some quarters, the film and Oldman’s central performance are both at their best when they tone down the bombast and openly admit just how close Britain came to ruin.
The films takes place during the earliest days of Churchill’s tenure as Prime Minister, with Europe falling to the march of Nazi Germany and Britain dangling perilously on the brink of invasion. The appeasement of Neville Chamberlain has left his position untenable and with his close political ally Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane, somehow occupying the ‘Snide English Villain’ role in an all-English cast) not yet ready to assume leadership, the only option is the one the party members want least: enter maverick Churchill, not quite skateboarding in wearing sunglasses, but tellingly introduced fatty breakfast and morning booze-first; booming, PJs-clad and cursing out his poor new secretary Ms Layton. Oldman sets out the stall for what his performance is going to be from this breakfast onwards, a doddery granddad type who wears his heart on his sleeve and is just a few decades out from complaining about PC gone mad from his bed every morning. Through the disapproving tuts of his fellow politicians and the misgivings of King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn, suitably grave), Churchill is firmly established for the viewers as an underdog and anti-establishment. Films like these talk about Gallipoli like it’s a Star Wars planet, a vague misadventure that Winston and Chewie could have sorted out if they just had a few more parsecs. Not to worry though, we know the lovable rogue is going to shoot from the hip, save the day at the last minute and win over the royal in the process. Where everyone else wants to talk things out with the Germans, only Winston has the wisdom to see what a mistake that is, and is happy to outline why in many a stagey speech.
Oldman’s performance can be divided into three categories: quiet, scenery-chewing speeches and kind old man comic relief – the good, the bad and the cuddly. It’s a strong example of the most acting being considered the best acting, but scenes where Oldman plays Churchill as quietened and uncertain are more interesting than the thundering, showy moments. The aim of the film is to appeal to emotion, but unfortunately it pushes that too far, too often – building to a mawkish nadir where Whimston chats with the ordinary people on the London Underground, keeping calm, carrying on and telling the hero what deep down he knew all along, that he was right. In particular, the film makes a point of showing Winston enthusiastically agreeing with the only black man on the tube (and film). It’s as patronising a scene as you might see in a serious film this year. The other actors in the film work with the thin archetypes they’re given, in service of the Churchill show – Lily James is a cheerleader as Ms Layton, who may have been a more significant character in a different cut, Kristen Scott Thomas is all doting smiles and what-is-he-like head shakes as Clementine Churchill, the thin and typical role of the Supportive Wife in flat dramas like this.
To give credit where it is due, Darkest Hour does avoid the frequent problem biopics of this nature fall into. Where it could easily have been a flatly-presented recitation from the history books, director Joe Wright keeps the film well-paced and provides a visual flourish. Dialogue scenes have a play-like quality, where the shifting power dynamics through character’s arguments are felt through the staging. The ‘darkness’ of Darkest Hour is used to good effect, encircling Churchill in his lowest moments, framing him as he looks out of windows or descends in elevators, threatening to close in. The devastation of war is shown poignantly through the combined eyes of the soldiers and Layton (who really might have been interesting if she had anything to do besides prop up her boss) combined with falling bombs. Ironically, one of the stand out sequences finds Churchill at a loss for words – attempting to dictate a speech, the film drowns him out with a recorded speech of Hitlers as he falters, a cinematically well-made case for the stakes as presented by the film; if Churchill can’t find his leadership skills through his speeches, all will be lost. Such effective sequences make the paint-by-numbers-then-watch-it-dry ones around them all the more frustrating.
Neither as technically impressive as Dunkirk nor as emotionally engaging as Their Finest, the film shoots for the middlebrow artistically, never a difficult target to hit. There is a definite appeal to eager audiences for stories of this type, but there will always be films like this, particularly during awards season, and Darkest Hour doesn’t do enough to set itself apart or justify its dishonestly lovable depiction of its subject. Mileage is likely to vary significantly for a film like this, and how it depicts its subject. Certainly a well-staged biopic for those interested, but like many of them are, not a nuanced on, a film that’s summising closing captions are on first name terms with “Winston”. Darkest Hour is a mixed-bag about a windbag, which is to say, not my bag.(2.5 / 5)