Winston Churchill has been a recurring character in many WWII-set films for a good reason. The man was virtually created to be seen on a movie screen. He had an iconic personality, known not only for his sharp wit but for his unyielding drive. Oh, and he also had a thing for inspirational speeches, another Hollywood staple. We’ve seen Churchill portrayed many times before. However, with a world-class actor like Gary Oldman paired up with a talented director like Joe Wright, I had hopes that “Darkest Hour” would be able to mine something interesting from the historical figure. Unfortunately, what we really have is a stagnant costume drama, one that takes a premise that should be pulsing with tension, then deflates it of any intrigue.
The main problem “Darkest Hour” has is that of focus. Ostensibly, the plot is about Winston Churchill as he tries to navigate the political minefield revolving around the Dunkirk evacuation. However, this plot is only brought in at about 45 minutes into the movie. The events leading up to this involve Churchill hanging around his family, adjusting to the petty squabbles of the Parliament, and stumbling around to corny music while writing inspirational speeches. It doesn’t exactly make for great drama.
Once the plot does get to the Dunkirk situation, it starts to pick up the pace a little more. I feel like this section of the film is really what drew Joe Wright to this project. It holds a lot of promise for energy and momentum, plus the claustrophobic setting allows Wright to indulge in his obsession with theatrical artifice. However, even then, the plot doesn’t move as fast as it should. There are way too many dull moments; moments where characters drive around, moments where characters idly chit-chat, and moments where Churchill sits around writing speeches. There should be a ticking clock throughout, the feeling that, at any moment, Hitler could be storming Britain, wiping out any hope of survival. But that sense of urgency just isn’t there. The script is simply too unfocused and the direction is unable to compensate.
I really am fascinated by the idea of turning one of the most important political moments in history into a self-conscious stage play. There are several touches that push the film in that interesting direction-some of which Wright has pulled from before, others completely new.
For one, the lighting conveys a great separation between the interiors and the outside world. Bathing the rooms in an inky blackness that’s occasionally cut through by sheets of brilliant white, the streets of London really do feel like intruding, blinding spotlights.
In shots where people operate elevators, Wright pulls back, leaving the elevator in a dark void. It’s a neat way of conveying the isolation that Churchill felt while having the visual flourish of an animated film.
There are also Wright’s typical montages, allowing the director to execute his old technique of matching the sounds of typewriters to the rhythm of the edit. This technique is pretty effective here, though I did miss the thrillingly over-the-top way “Atonement” was able to merge the click-clack sound of the keys with its score.
As far as Oldman’s much hyped-up performance, well… it’s pretty good. When the actor is just given the opportunity to just behave, to just sit in the skin of this man and interact with the world as he would, he’s excellent. Oldman’s no stranger to acting through makeup, and here he’s able to bring an iconic figure down to Earth. In the smaller scenes, it doesn’t feel like he’s leaning too much into the Churchill persona. He’s just… being Winston.
That being said, when Oldman has to emote, the naturalism starts to fall apart. There’s a scene early on where Churchill listens to a radio broadcast of the Nazi advancements. It’s clear that he’s immensely sad, but it doesn’t feel like Churchill is sad. Rather, it felt like any random guy who happened to look like Churchill being sad. The big, yelling scenes were a bit rough, too. These were the few moments where I felt like Oldman was playing into the idea of Churchill, rather than just being Churchill.
However, there is one scene near the end of the movie that is so awful that it caused my jaw to literally drop. At this point in the film, Churchill is given two options: either evacuate the troops at the risk of heavy losses or sign a peace treaty with Germany. Churchill wants the former, but many of his opponents want the latter. Eventually, he seems close to giving up his stance before he decides to have the bright idea of asking a bunch of randos on a train their opinion. What follows is a (fabricated) scene that is so insanely mawkish and sentimental that the CEO of Hallmark probably wished he would have thought of it himself. The passengers all, unanimously, cheer to fight on in some sort of well-organized group chant, thereby letting Churchill know what political position he should take. If the guy was that easily influenced by other people, I’d hate to see what would have happened if he took a late night train instead. He might’ve burned down Buckingham Palace.