by Benjamín Harguindey
Offering little in the way of novelty or excitement, Darkest Hour (2017) is essentially a one-man show starring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, delivering a wonderfully humane performance that sidesteps cliché in an otherwise unremarkable period piece. Best case scenario, history will remember the movie as the vehicle that finally earned Oldman a long overdue Oscar, and not much else.
Directed by Joe Wright, the movie takes place throughout early 1940, from Neville Chamberlain’s resignation as Prime Minister to Churchill’s rousing “We shall fight on the beaches” speech at Parliament, which as far as the movie is concerned sealed England’s heroic fate in World War II. Unpopular, unwanted and contested for his belligerant stance by Chamberlain and his supporters, the movie depicts Sir Winston at his most vulnerable – a far cry from the usual portrait of zest and geniality.
Oldman, otherwise known for his energy and bravado, gives a wonderfully nuanced performance as a man slowly despairing and losing his cool as his allies grow unconvinced, his enemies pressure on and the Axis powers steadfastedly march towards Britain. For visual shorthand Wright shoots Churchill in tight spaces enclosed in darkness that are slightly reminiscent of confessionals and has him despair in private, at one point even calling on an infuriatingly nonchalant FDR as a useless priest of sorts.
In a nutshell the working theme is resolve, and whether Sir Winston will manage to lead the country towards war or work a compromise with Hitler. His biggest allies are the two women in his life: his wife Clemmie (Kristin Scott Thomas) and his new secretary Elizabeth (Lily James), both of them essentially scolding the man forward. Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) meanwhile try to weaken Churchill’s position and negotiate peace through Mussolini. King George (Ben Mendehlson, doing the lithp Colin Firth wouldn’t) is on the fence about Sir Winston, and shares some delightfully awkward scenes with the PM.
The acting and period detail are decent enough; Operation Dynamo – the maritime evacuation of troops as seen last year in Dunkirk – is only glimpsed from Dover’s side, but features center point as a point of contention in Parliament. The lone battlefront scene – the bombing of Calais, depicted with a rather cartoony zoom out/zoom in – provides some unintended bathos, as does the scene in which Sir Winston bumbles his way to the metro and seeks the counsel of “the people” at what’s presumably the darkest hour of the title. The man is fabled to have incurred in such spontaneous meet and greets, but even going in with that in mind the scene still feels incredibly sappy and indulgent.
Other than for Oldman’s benchmark portrayal of Winston Churchill there’s little to recommend about Darkest Hour. Although considerably more dramatic than The Post, the movie still feels mostly educational, a morality tale with a foregone if noble message that will duly confirm what everybody already knows. Both movies are about choosing to fight a higher power over settling for comfort and complacency – specifically about that one defining moment of resolve, and everything that leads up to it. How far we’ve come from The King’s Speech.
Benjamín Harguindey / Managing Editor, Writer (Mar del Plata, Argentina – 1989) Screenwriter graduated from Universidad del Cine, Buenos Aires. Benja’s worked for EscribiendoCine as a film critic since 2010, covering the Biarritz, San Sebastián and Venice festivals. He judged the CILECT Prize and won several writing & criticism contests. He’s published one novel, Noches de Tartaria (2006).