Gary Oldman endured hours of makeup and prosthetic applications every day to portray British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, to great effect. Oldman is a chameleon of an actor, a guy who has been making movies for more than thirty years; this may be his crowning achievement.
Joe Wright’s film takes place in 1939 and 1940, as Britain prepares for war and must choose a new Prime Minister because Parliament has lost faith in Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup). Should Churchill make nice with Hitler, as many people are advising, or roar defiantly against the Nazi menace? Looking back, it is unthinkable that acquiescence was ever seriously considered, but history tells us otherwise, and that Churchill’s bold stand against tyranny was the key to encouraging the world to fight back.
With such a strong premise and great central performance at its core, it is thus surprising to me that Darkest Hour is not a total triumph. The film is too long, too long-winded and, ultimately, too adulatory to be great drama. It is over-directed and under-written, in my opinion. I became tired of listening to Churchill go on and on, not blaming any of the Englishmen who opposed him and his hard-headedness. The film drags quite noticeably in the middle before its best sequence, set on a subway where Churchill mixes with the common folk; this sequence is cloying and obvious, but it works beautifully anyway. I kept comparing this to LBJ in my head, another narrowly-focused political film, which boasts much sharper dialogue toward a similar transcendent oratorial climax.
Darkest Hour is an important film which may win Gary Oldman a Best Actor Oscar (and probably a BAFTA award as well, among others). It is yet another historical drama that illuminates some of the shadowy recent past, and particularly timely as forces of oppression are on the move once again. It is a film of merit, but like Dunkirk — which covers some of the same territory from a completely different perspective — it should have been much better than it actually is. ☆ ☆ ☆. 1 January 2018.