Writer: Anthony McCarten
Cast: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Stephen Dillane, Lily James, Ben Mendelsohn, Ronald Pickup
Running time: 125mins
What’s the story: As Britain stands alone against the Nazis, and its army awaits capture at Dunkirk, newly appointed prime minister Winston Churchill clashes with critics in his own party about fighting Germany or negotiating for peace.
What’s the verdict: Unlike those brothers who shared his family name, Joe Wright has yet to successfully land a project. Sometimes his films soar briefly. But, audience expectations crash to earth with a sense of frustrated disappointment (Atonement) or outright annoyance (The Soloist).
Darkest Hour promises to be the director’s most sustained movie yet. True to form though, Joe snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. But, we’ll get to that later.
Wright’s latest arrives with more buzz than a beehive, all of it centered on Gary Oldman’s Golden Globe winning performance as Churchill. With only one Oscar nomination to his name, for 2011’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, should Oldman win this time? Perhaps, but it would be a body of work award (including that excellent turn in Tinker, Tailor…).
His performance as the tenacious, oratorically inclined war time prime minister is very much the eccentric, carousing man of the people painted by popular history. Rather than the privileged, fine-living aristo he was (and loved being).
Here, he’s even introduced being served a fried British Isles breakfast (albeit with champagne, but you know, eccentric…).
This willful romanticism smothers Darkest Hour. History as your great gran would tell it, Wright’s film is populated with broad pantomime performances, lots of smoking, minimal swearing and a happy ending. It all makes more sense when realising it was penned by Anthony McCarten, scriptwriter of The Dreary, excuse us, Theory of Everything.
With characters slapped on the page in the broadest brushstrokes, small wonder the cast follow Oldman’s lead and play to the back row.
Scott-Thomas gives affectionate headmistress as Churchill’s supportive wife, Clemmie. Ben Mendelsohn’s King George VI swaps Colin Firth’s heavy stammering for a milder stutter and comic “wubbleyew” enunciation. Stephen Dillane as Churchill critic Viscount Halifax does good sneering conspirator. Lily James is on hand for the youth audience as the cantankerous statesman’s personal secretary. Only Ronald Pickup’s as Chamberlain invests anything resembling character depth, and he’s afforded too little screen time.
Occasionally, Darkest Hour captures the enormity of the crisis Britain was facing in standing alone against the Nazis. A well-played scene of desperation has Churchill unsuccessfully begging for aid from the isolationist President Roosevelt (a voice cameo’ing David Strathairn). A fictitious pep talk from King George strikes just the right note of acknowledging what made Churchill the right man to face Hitler.
Wright’s movie also arrives on a wave of Dunkirk nostalgia, following Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster-with-brains and the winning Their Finest. Brief recreations here break the film out the confines of shadowy cabinet war rooms and the Downton Abbey environs of Churchill’s palatial home. Although Wright resists attempting to outdo his five-minute tracking shot along the Dunkirk beach in Atonement.
Yet, all this is for nothing. As mentioned at the top, Darkest Hour fails. Initially due to the Sunday night drama storytelling, too quaint after Nolan’s achievement. Or the other Winston Churchill film of 2017, simply titled Churchill, starring Brian Cox in the lead role and seen by too few cinemagoers.
McCarten’s script also struggles to capture the PM’s artistry with language. Bog standard scenes of the old geezer rewriting speeches more resemble a schoolboy rushing his end of term paper than penning the words that galvanised a nation.
Yet, all this pales beside a risible scene in which Churchill seeks the counsel of common folk on the London Underground. A sequence acknowledged as fiction by McCarten. A moment that would be no less absurd if Oldman was replaced with Paddington Bear.
Wright and McCarten paint their principal characters with a decorator’s brush. But, the honest folk encountered on the Tube are plastered on screen with a 12-inch roller. So condescendingly portrayed are these salt-of-the-earth types it is a genuine surprise they are not billed as Ethel Yorkshire-Pudding, Barry Bank-Holiday-Monday and Winston Blackman in the closing credits.
We’re not saying the filmmakers have never met anyone who lived in a council house. It just 100% comes across that way.
The one award Darkest Hour does deserve is Best Make-Up for artist Kazuhiro Tsuji. Oldman’s heavy jowls and corpulence are a work of art rather than a Norbit fat suit.
But, this is audience-chasing World War 2 nostalgia porn of the most depressing kind. Nigel Farage will love it.