Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill elevates a film that struggles to be anything other than ordinary.
Director: Joe Wright
Starring: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn, Lily James
Runtime: 124 mins
Release date: 12 January 2018
We first meet Churchill through the eyes of his new secretary (Lily James), which immediately brings to mind Downfall, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s superb film about the last days of Hitler, which also gives us a secretary’s eye view of its wartime leader. And the similarities don’t stop there. Both films feature their subjects in underground complexes, ranting at aides and generals about questionable strategies. Of course, history has vilified Hitler, while (mostly) vindicating Churchill. It’s that spirit of unquestioning vindication that informs Joe Wright’s film.
Darkest Hour hones in on Churchill’s early days as Prime Minister, from his controversial appointment to his nation-rousing “We shall fight on the beaches” speech. It was a politically tenuous time for Churchill. His own party wanted the popular Viscount Halifax in the job, and in fact formulated plans to oust Churchill as soon as possible. He was tremendously unpopular. Delusional, performer, drunkard, and insufferable are just some of the words characters use to describe him.
And Gary Oldman is all of them. Oldman’s performance is the kind that critics like to describe as “mesmerising” and “towering”. I don’t think those sorts of epithets are suitable, though. The truly remarkable thing about Oldman’s performance is how it so completely melts into the film’s milieu. When we first see Churchill, propped up in bed eating bacon and eggs, we might be distracted by the fantastic prosthetics (courtesy of Kazuhiro Tsuji). But then Oldman starts acting, and within a few seconds we’ve forgotten that it’s James Gordon/Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg/Sid Vicious in make-up.
A brilliant performance deserves a brilliant film. Unfortunately, Wright can only muster up a mediocre one. For most of Darkest Hour’s 125 minute running time it’s only slightly engaging, buoyed by occasional glimpses of the cinematic skill that made Atonement’s war scenes the main attractions in a similarly uninteresting film. An aerial shot of a battlefield segues into the blankly staring face of a corpse. Elsewhere, Wright’s camera ascends from Calais’s citadel, where a British battalion is failing to fend off German troops, before plummeting back down with the German bombs. Extraordinary moments in an ordinary film.
Just as Churchill’s early days in office were taken up with the disastrous retreat to the French beaches, so is Anthony McCarten’s script. The problem is, Dunkirk came out a scant few months ago. Christopher Nolan’s superlative war film forswore war cabinets and strategy meetings in favour of the desperate struggle of the common soldiers. Darkest Hour is seemingly nothing but war cabinets and strategy meetings, and I was left with one overriding feeling: I’d rather be watching Dunkirk. To make matters worse, a brief shot of the civilian fleet sent to evacuate the soldiers is clearly rendered in CGI, which just looks naff compared to the astounding physical effects Nolan pulled off.
Still, like Churchill’s most famous speech, Darkest Hour rushes to an undeniably stirring crescendo. A late scene, featuring Churchill on the Underground polling the British public, showcases Oldman’s Churchill at his jocular best, and the British public at their determined, defiant best. Then it’s on to Parliament, and Churchill is telling the nation that we’ll fight on the beaches. I’m no true patriot, and I recognise emotional exploitation when I see it, but even I can admit to feeling a verse or two of “God Save the Queen” coming on during Darkest Hour’s climax.
It isn’t enough to save this from being anything other than an unexceptional film, elevated by Oldman’s mesmerising and towering performance. Downfall ended with the defeated Fuhrer taking his own life down in his bunker. Darkest Hour ends with Churchill ready to lead his nation to victory. It’s a little ironic, then, that Hitler ended up with the better film.