Darkest Hour (2018) (Review)

Darkest 'Gary Oldman Pleads For an Oscar' Hour seemingly continues the Dunkirk Cinematic Universe that began last year with Their Finest and continued into that summer with Christopher Nolan's Magnus opus, Dunkirk. Unfortunately for everyone involved this is the weakest Dunkirk-themed picture of the year and boasts very little outside of Oldman's starry lead performance.

Darkest Hour examines Winston Churchill's rise to power and his day-to-day steering of the war effort in the early 1940s, starting with the Dunkirk evacuation that led to his most recognisable, and arguably the most well-known British speeches, of all time. It considers the dynamics of a torn parliament; the opposition supported him but his party detested his power and determination to continue the fight rather than surrender to peace talks. Is Darkest Hour as stirring as a Churchill speech? Or is it more akin to the type of dense twaddle spoken by today's political elite?

Gary Oldman will win the Oscar for Best Actor. It's as close to guaranteed as possible at this point in time. It is a role seemingly hand-designed for both Oldman and an Oscar win; Hollywood will lap this up and it is easy to see why. Flourished with those famous speeches and the finest costume, hair and make-up department in the game, he certainly looks and sounds the Churchill part, throwing himself in the deep end for the role. But was I ever convinced I was watching Churchill deliver these speeches? I don't think I was. It felt like a caricature; a sketch of a leader delivered by a very talented man who cannot quite unchain himself from the cynicism of it all; this is Oscarbait pure and simple, intended to sweep up gold statues like it life depends on it, because it was born to do so. Oldman's is a towering performance and a transformative turn of theatrical proportions and its loudness will translate to a win - but it's monotonous and drawn-out and I cannot fully accept it as a fantastic piece of screen acting, with no subtlety in sight. It's all character and no nuance.

His supporting cast do a solid if unspectacular job with the biopic. Lily James is tremendous at doing a lot with very little, emotional and weighty as Churchill's naive secretary; while Kristin Scott Thomas is decent as Clementine, Churchill's wife, she is often sidelined in both the film and their relationship. Ben Mendelsohn's turn as King George VI is utilised too few and far between to leave a strong impression but he is sturdy nonetheless. With the spotlight firmly on Oldman, the remaining male characters are all one-note, seemingly blending into one 'figure' with little to differentiate the revolving-door of politicians as old, white and male as they are difficult to separate.

Anthony McCarten's unbalanced screenplay is very heavy-handed. As on-the-nose as they come, McCarten tries to cover a lot of ground without discovering any depth at all, meaning everything is casually skimmed over with limited-scope and insight. Very explanatory and exposition-friendly, the dialogue is unnatural - people are introduced by their name and full title which is flat-out strange - and the quick, snappy pace prevents it from exploring the more profound, or interesting. A focus group train-set sequence, which I liked an awful lot in the moment, is far more peculiar in retrospect, a symbol of the film itself: manipulative, forced and twee. Authenticity is never a factor in the screenplay (outside of Churchill's own speeches) and it made me feel very distant to it; with no clarity to his decision and little insight into his drive, the screenplay considers the political rather than the emotion, which throws the balance - and me - completely off.

Joe Wright's direction is certainly very slick and it's lusciously cinematic thanks to Bruno Delbonnel's cinematography, even when this sheen distracts from the narrative. The parliament scenes in particular feature some soaring moments packed to the rafters with grander; the opening shot is especially impressive, surveying the room where it eventually plucks out Churchill's famous bowler sitting in his seat while he ensures his 'fingerprints are not on the weapon'. Similarly, the ending - "we will fight on the beaches" - is the second greatest use of this monologue in the past twelve months following Dunkirk's captivating conclusion last year. Wright is undeniably talented - you need only glance at his filmography to understand that - and while there are some great moments to use in his showreel here, it felt that more care was placed in the visuals than the actual substance of the script.

Wright's long-term collaborator Dario Marianelli returns with a stirring and memorable score that tries unite the unfocused narrative. Suspenseful and dramatic, it injects some much-needed energy and urgency into a film that needs something or someone to provide focus.

Darkest Hour will find its audience and will win Oldman the ever-elusive Oscar he chases. But when it comes down to it, I cannot say I was overly-impressed with the film whose melodramatic and theatrical tendencies undercut an important piece of British history. With distance, my disappointment and frustrations with it have only seemed to increased. Its inclination to explore the political over the emotional renders it unbalanced and rather disengaging for my liking.

Oldman has his cake and eats it as Churchill and considering the heavy prosthetics he is contending with, does a mighty fine job; but the script and all its 'YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH!" monologues (so excellently worded by Alistair Ryder, thanks buddy), rarely provide him an opportunity for subtlety, understatement or authenticity, truly working against him. To paraphrase the ever-wonderful Scott Mendelson, can this (Dunkirk) franchise be saved?

For those still wondering, I remain firmly #TeamChalamet.


Summary: Darkest Hour's focus on the political over the emotional is mishandled by a script as melodramatic and overly-theatrical as Gary Oldman's highly-acclaimed performance, blatantly designed only to win him an Oscar trophy. A manipulatively rousing experience.