Darkest Hour begins and ends with a cacophony of yelling. And in the 120 minutes between these two shots, there is plenty more shouting, although none do so louder or more verbosely than Gary Oldman, who transforms himself into Winston Churchill for this film about the early days of his premiership.
Director Joe Wright chooses to narrow his focus down to a period of a few weeks, from Churchill’s assumption of the premiership against the wishes of his own party, to his famous “We shall fight on the beaches” speech, during which time the evacuation of Dunkirk was completed. While Wright expands his scope to include a number of peripheral characters, including Winnie Churchill (Kristin Scott Thomas) and secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), it’s clear that this is Oldman’s film. It’s the right decision, and allows the film to rattle along at a rather lively place, whilst also showing a point in Churchill’s narrative when he wasn’t a national hero. That being said, the fact we know he will eventually be absolved removes some of the precariousness from the story.
Oldman manages to undergo, with help from heavy prosthetics, a startling transformation into the Prime Minister – a feat made more impressive when we consider how fixed Churchill’s image is in our cultural consciousness. Oldman allows his Churchill to let his guard down at a number of points in the film – particularly the scenes with his wife, for which Scott Thomas doesn’t get nearly enough screen time. Rather than going down the traditional route, well-trodden by those who have played Churchill in the past, and portraying him as merely blustery and irritable, Oldman pulls together a number of nuances and affectations to make his Churchill a more rounded character. At key points in the drama, however, he reverts to type, huffing and puffing through his lines.
It’s lucky for Wright that Oldman manages to rise to the challenge, since he elevates what would otherwise be a forgettable film. While Wright’s camerawork is adept – despite an over-reliance on a number of formulaic shots and tracking decisions – this is a film where the actors have been glossed over, constrained within a patina of overlighting, over-costuming, and over-scoring.
In other words, Darkest Hour resembles any number of other big-budget historical dramas – The Imitation Game, Suffragette, The King’s Speech – which gives it a sense of datedness. While it’s a style of film that is, obviously, still being made, alongside its more nimble compatriots on the road to the Oscars it resembles a plodding dinosaur. An enjoyable watch, but not a film that does much new, or stick in the mind once the credits have rolled.
Dir: Joe Wright. Script: Anthony McCarten. Starring: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane. 125 minutes