Director: Joe Wright
Stars: Gary Oldman, Stephen Dillane, Ben Mendelsohn
It’s telling that the poster for Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour has been quickly reorganised so that it can boast – with a third of its acreage – that the film has been nominated for 6 Academy Awards. That space was laying in wait for those nominations, so assured was this brazen slab of Oscar bait that it would secure the affection of its primary audience. Every year we get a handful of pictures of its kind, but rarely are they so utterly concerned with the affections of the old establishment.
Darkest Hour panders for its entire 125 minute duration as Gary Oldman, wrapped up in padding and latex, chews the scenery in his larger than life portrayal of Winston Churchill during the early days of his tenure as Prime Minister. It has the so-called powerhouse central turn, all bluster and shouting, the legacy of so-called truth. It ticks the boxes of period drama, documenting landmark societal upheaval. And in Joe Wright it has the perfect puppetmaster to wield something of such blunt intent. He’s like Richard Attenborough in Jurassic Park, but his dinosaurs are the corpses of the hoariest of old prestige filmmaking tropes, as though the medium need only ever look back. So consumed with his confidence that he could, he never stops to question whether he should.
Oldman blubbers and stammers and shouts “bugger” as funny old fuddy-duddy Winston Churchill, handed leadership of the British government following the incompetency of Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup). That Winston Churchill full-throatedly inspired and by-turns changed the fate of Britain and the war is without question. He is one of the great figures of our history in the 20th century. But hagiography of this dumb intensity is usually the domain of five-minute comedy sketches, material which pre-empts and lambasts movies like this one.
Anthony McCarten’s script reshapes Churchill’s personality into that of the lovable grouch, asking us to find cuteness in belligerency under the guise of patriotism. But more contemptible than that, it rewrites whole swathes of his personality. A sequence which takes place aboard a tube train dares the viewer to laugh at such blatant manipulation of the phrase ‘based on a true story’. To paraphrase Tommy Lee Jones in No Country For Old Men, I suppose its true that it’s a story. In earlier scenes, Joe Wright can’t help but resist CG-constructed shots of bombs showering down on British soldiers in Calais. On the London Underground he just as willingly pelts the viewer with cheese. Darkest Hour almost becomes self-aware of how risible it is.
Wright has a peppered history of clogging up his work with cack-handed attempts at faux dynamism, whether that manifests in the widescreen battlescapes of Atonement or virtually every scene of Anna Karenina. It is as though he fears that the subjects of his films are encumbered by their historical or literary roots, and therefore require visual gimmicks in order to feel at home on cinematic terms. This urge to fulfill a mandate of ‘more is more’ often drives a wedge into the work where pared-down honesty would’ve more likely yielded more engaging results.
So it goes again here, though there are times where Wright tries to work in the opposite direction; subtracting from the frame. He takes this literally on a number of occasions, chopping Oldman down until he is confined or constrained in little boxes in the middle of the screen, darkness all around him. Trouble is, it’s just as self-conscious, so we’re back to square one again.
Oldman has received praise for his turn as Churchill, and credit to him, he’s fully committed, but the performance is all bluster, and loud isn’t always the same as good. A recent comparison might be made to James McAvoy in Split. There the younger Scottish actor played a number of different personalities. The question prompted being, were they fine performances or merely very distracting ones? Oldman’s Churchill feels like this year’s version. Is there an award out there for hardest working actor as opposed to best?
Wright’s camera makes him a giant in nearly all scenes, certainly whenever he is viewed from the perspective of his typist Elizabeth Layton (Lily James). Much like Kristin Scott Thomas’ appearance as Churchill’s wife Clemmie, James is sadly reduced to little more than an extra; a presence for good ol’ Winnie to bounce his famed verbosity off of. The great Ben Mendelsohn fares better as King George VI, working some curious furrows across his knitted brow, though he is almost exclusively seen in counterpoint to Oldman, and these scenes are almost derailed in a lose-lose battle of funny voices.
The lesson Churchill seems to learn through Darkest Hour is how to confront the truth when dealing with the British public, and – SPOILER – honesty is always the best policy. Yet the film feels compromised by how it varnishes history, skewering a more thoughtful and humane depiction in favour of one populated by caricatures, one that is all too ripe for misinterpretation as a battle cry for Brexit Britain. Much like those reworked posters, the bus advertisements for Darkest Hour prioritise the great acclaim the film has received, promising something undeniably great. But then, you can get into an awful lot of trouble trusting things written on the side of buses.