Perhaps unintentionally, Darkest Hour could be viewed as a companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. The flawed but solid work from Joe Wright gives an idea of what was happening back in the houses of British Parliament while the chaos unfolded on beaches of Dunkirk. Darkest Hour functions as a bit more of an acting showcase for the great Gary Oldman, than a compelling biopic of one of the worlds most popular leaders. His performance is nothing short of spectacular, even when the movie that surrounds him isn’t anything to marvel at.
Darkest Hour dives, shallowly at best, into the early days of Winston Churchill’s tenure as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Before he even gets out of bed, Mr. Churchill has had his cigar, his whiskey and various other vices. He yells at his typist Elizabeth Layton, played by Lily James. Within his ramblings to Ms. Layton, we see the great paradox Wright is trying to establish. Churchill mumbles and rambles through his speeches, when the finish product is anything but incoherent.
It is a certainly a showy performance by Oldman. It has the feeling of a prestige, Oscar baiting feel. However, it’s genuinely engrossing and never boring. Beneath the make up and prosthetics is an artist at work, delivering his career best performance. Recently, though it is a performance I will defend, Leonardo DiCaprio was unable to shake the makeup and prosthetics in J. Edgar in a similar performance that was gunning for gold. The rest of the cast is also solid. The underrated Ben Mendelsohn is commanding in another great supporting role. Equally up to the task are Stephen Dillane and Ronald Pickup as the two government officials who are against the war hawk Churchill.
The unfortunate aspect is the film never wants to dive deeper into the mystery behind the man. Churchill’s speeches are inherently cinematic which unfortunately is a good and a bad thing. Anthony McCarten’s (The Theory of Everything) screenplay and the direction Wright chooses to take are both equally showboating.
To that extent, the movie is cliched. Accompanied by a swelling score from Dario Marianelli that is exactly what you’d expect from a prestige picture like Darkest Hour. Oldman delivers his famed monologues to the boisterous score that peaks right at the most dramatic moment. Even the cinematography, which is terrific, fits perfectly within the context of the movie. Wright has assembled a dream team to deliver that retro, Oscar contender type feel.
But how much pandering can we take? Sure Oldman is brilliant, but on some level the film has to stand out. Ultimately, the film plays it safe, looking for just the right moment to draw you into the tense and heroic moments of the film protagonist. On that level Darkest Hour is entirely effective and had me engaged throughout. If not for its swift pace, Darkest Hour falls into a near unwatchable film. Wright does an admirable job of shedding light on several aspects of the Dunkirk situation. The doom and gloom surrounding the thought of 300,000 soldiers being wiped out by German forces advancing is palpable. It’s a thought Mr. Churchill has trouble making a decision around.
Darkest Hour is a very good movie, but Wright’s proclivity to showboat with the material hampers it from being great. Choosing to focus on the early days of his days as PM gives the film a direct inspiration. Still, leaving the theater it’s impossible to escape the feeling we have just scratched the surface of his utterly fascinating story. To me, Oldman elevates the material. He is fierce and nuanced at the same time in delivering one of the best lead performances of the year thus far. He digs as far as he can go, even if the movie doesn’t.
Are you looking forward to Darkest Hour? Let us know! It opens in select theaters on November 22!
Rated: PG-13 (for some thematic material)
Running Time: 125 minutes
Starring: Gary Oldman, Stephen Dillane, Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ronald Pickup,
Directed by: Joe Wright