In Darkest Hour, director Joe Wright and writer Anthony McCarten are both firmly in their wheelhouse. Both men are big on these kinds of historical period pieces, so they certainly know what they are doing here. While it is tempting to consider Darkest Hour a companion piece to Cristopher Nolan’s Dunkirk earlier this year on account of the similar subject matter, it is crucial to recognize that Darkest Hour approaches this story from a more singular perspective, focusing on a kind of character study of the great Winston Churchill instead of a more all-encompassing view of heroism. Fortunately, Gary Oldman turns in one of the greatest transformative performances of his career. Thus, though Darkest Hour is a fine film Gary Oldman is easily its centerpiece.
This film is essentially a character study focusing on Winston Churchill in the weeks leading up to the Battle of Dunkirk. Gary Oldman is the obvious draw here, his performance is an inhabitation. Solid costumes and makeup work help Oldman out, but this is truly an Oscar-worthy performance. Oldman has always been a solid and dedicated character actor, consistently willing to transform himself and disappear behind makeup or a mask (see: Hannibal). But, his performances are much more than kitsch peculiarities.
In Darkest Hour, Oldman is ever-present and completely in control of the character. He is a bit of a tyrant in his own house, easily dispensing with anyone he deems untalented enough. He jokes with his wife, who is completely capable of firing witticisms back at him. The major arc of the character involves Churchill successfully convincing Parliament that negotiating with Germany is an impossibility. Members of the opposing party insist that a reconciliation is the only option because there is no chance for England to withstand the Nazis. Even members of his own party aren’t sure that Churchill knows what he is doing. Yet, Churchill finds the conviction and “mobilizes the English language” against the Nazi scourge.
As with many World War II films, Darkest Hour is a grim little affair. The look of the film uses a lot of grays, dark alleys, dark rooms, and even heavy rain during many of the scenes. The film is at its brightest during scenes in Parliament, especially when Churchill is speaking. Unfortunately, beyond this very simplistic “dark” tone to the film, there isn’t anything particularly distinctive about the cinematography here.
If Darkest Hour has a consistent weakness, it is that most of the film shares this same lack of distinction (aside from Oldman’s performance, obviously). The story is fine, nothing more (it may even be a little manipulative). The other characters are a bit one-dimensional. As an historical drama, it feels a little like a paint-by-numbers, merely trying to tick off all the boxes of what should constitute a “good movie”.
And still, Darkest Hour has a consistent and solid vision: a high-level defense of individualism and freedom. These themes are often present when dealing with World War II, but this film definitely focuses on them. Churchill is adamant that nothing less than their way of life is at stake in this fight – and that you don’t compromise on such fundamental values. In this way, the film is able to espouse some other important ideas about leadership, political maneuvering, and how a politician can use storytelling and exaggeration to build a suitable narrative for a specific cause. These are strong ideas, but Darkest Hour feels like a Lite version of them.
It’s funny – a cursory glance of this review could come to the conclusion that Darkest Hour is a weak film. This is not the case. It is a film with one outstanding feature and a host of average ones. Gary Oldman simply blows every other thing in this movie away with his performance. Just because a movie only features one exemplary aspect does not make it a mediocre film – or even a disposable one. It is okay to champion one great thing about a film if it reaches the level that Gary Oldman’s performance does in Darkest Hour.