In some ways, Darkest Hour is a perfect companion to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, dramatizing the political goings on that were pulling the strings of the characters struggling in and around that accursed beach. This film, from director Joe Wright (Hanna, Anna Karinina), focuses on the first few days of Winston Churchill’s time as Prime Minister. While often engaging, the film’s best moments are its boldest, but they are few.
The film divides its time between Churchill (a heavily heavily made up Gary Oldman) at home and at work. His contemptuous relationships with his political allies and adversaries, like King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), and General Hastings Ismay (Richard Lumsden) take a central focus, and are the most engaging parts of the film. These scenes seem perfectly suited to Wright’s theatrical style, and the actors here give it their all with the aid of tight closeups and unflattering angles emphasizing the unpleasant task of politics during wartime.
Wright also gives us a point of view character in Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), a new secretary of Mr. Churchill. She knows him by reputation, and starts off very intimidated by his intensity. She forms a working relationship with him, and the intent is that the audience also comes to see Churchill’s human side. However, the film never actually accomplishes that.
Churchill consistently remains an enigmatic figure in Darkest Hour. Oldman gives an astounding performance that feels both candid and naturalistic, but is never allowed to divulge what actually drives this man other than the great gears of history. The ramifications of his decisions are concisely and clearly shown, but not how or why those decisions or points of view came to be. Churchill is given the benefit of hindsight, as if every decision he made was the correct one, rather than trying to put us in those actual moments.
Thankfully the film looks fantastic, though it would have benefited from even more of Wright’s flair. Overhead renderings of battles, calendars rolling over, and the underground war rooms are handled with equal panache, giving the film a cinematic flavor that would otherwise be lacking. But it should have been even less restrained, and might have been able to give us the feeling of how many moves ahead Churchill was playing, or how many details he was holding in his head at any one given time.
However, I propose a new challenge. The next great interconnected cinematic universe should be history. Ben Mendelsohn gives a fine performance as the speech-impeded King, but imagine if Colin Firth had reprised his role from The King’s Speech? And if Gary Oldman had cameoed as Churchill in Dunkirk and Their Finest? Then a movie about the Yalta Conference (we can recast FDR, sorry Bill Murray)! Let me stop myself before I get all the way into the Cold War. I’m going to stay up late tonight casting this thing.
Darkest Hour opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Ryan Silberstein
Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights
as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.