Director: Joe Wright
Screenplay: Douglas Urbanski
Starring: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ronald Pickup, Ben Mendelsohn
Runtime: 125 Minutes
Darkest Hour has arrived at a time in which recent cinema has been weirdly (coincidently) focused on a very specific period of history, that being the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940. In the space of a year not only have there been two major blockbusters covering the event in some form – Their Finest and Dunkirk – but both of which have had the shadow of Prime Minister Winston Churchill looming over them in some form.
It’s also the second feature in as much time to cover Churchill as a central figure after last years Churchill with Brian Cox in the leading role. While well intentioned and covering similar ground it failed to dazzle with numerous errors and a lack of attention paid to it's visual splendour. It’s sad to report that while Joe Wright’s latest stab at bringing the larger then life figure to screen feels far more cinematic in scale – with a much stronger Churchill on hand in the form of Gary Oldman – it similarly succumbs to the allure of placing dramatic function ahead of accuracy in an inevitably damaging way.
The film has its saving graces in the manner of its visual presentation and the director at the helm. Joe Wright is a brilliantly capable filmmaker with a style that feels paradoxically controlled and artistically vibrant. Wright restricts most of the film to interior sets with a very distinctive and kept look to his vision of a Britain on the cusp of war. Darkened and dour, its environments look like a dirty oil painting, but the lighting is deeply expressionist and harsh with a concentration on boxing Churchill into impossible spaces with stoic frames and low angles.
The other winning element is the casting of Oldman in the lead role. This is very much his picture, and while it does come across at moments that this is ultimately a film designed to be screened at certain award ceremonies (of which he will undoubtedly win), he’s a thunderous presence acting as loud and fevered as possible. The makeup work by Kazuhiro Tsuji is extraordinary and a perfect balance of performance and physical reproduction, allowing enough of Oldman though the forge his own version of the character.
The said character feels like something intended to humanise a historical figure in ways small and large. From the grumbling charge of his movements and his constant consumption of food, drink and cigars, to the premise of him facing a personal crisis at a significant juncture of recent history, where he was forced to make the decision to fight or surrender to the impending destruction of British society by the Nazis.
This sympathy is reinforced by those who surround him, from his wife Clementine (thanklessly performed by Kristin Scott Thomas who’s given nothing to do) to Ben Mendelsohn as a terrifically downplayed King George VI who is held at arm’s length as a compassionate presence for quite some time. There’s also Lily James as Secretary Elizabeth Layton; a composite character used sparingly to give Churchill glimpses into a society he doesn’t venture into all that often – the voice of the people, if you will.
It’s in this regard where the film falters spectacularly. Douglas Urbanski’s screenplay struggles to make the most of an interesting premise over a runtime in which little actually unfolds, pausing at points for fist-pumping moments of both deconstructed speechifying and pure spectacle of the man bellowing vocabulary like it’s nobody’s business.
But the final act is a catastrophic disaster of fluctuation in which the film throws all pretence toward reality or fact out the window in a horribly contrived and, frankly, unbelievable sequence in which Churchill rides the underground to survey the British public in order to make a snap emotionally driven decision to take a country into war.
It’s unknown how much of this was in the original screenplay when Wright signed on in early 2016, but it’s as if the film realises it can no longer go on without addressing Brexit Britain before it devolves into a nationalist chest thumping of patriotic duty in which Britain must protect its borders in a broad and decidedly unintellectual manner.
Darkest Hour reaches for gallantry but bungles it spectacularly in a horribly misjudged final act of message-mongering, and by the time the final speech comes around its hard to care all that much about where it was even heading. Still, Wright’s direction is strong and conspicuous (a decent return after the disaster of Pan) and Oldman saves the day as a humorously played and convincing lead.