I don’t know what it’s been but this past year we’ve seen a few films revolving around the Dunkirk evacuation. Dunkirk focused on the actual evacuation, Their Finest focused on the public reaction to the evacuation and now we’ve got Darkest Hour, focusing on Winston Churchill’s reaction to the events surrounding the evacuation. Now director Joe Wright has experience with the Dunkirk evacuation, having based key moments in Atonement around the event, but let’s be real, the main draw for this film is Gary Oldman as Churchill, and whilst it is an excellent performance, the film doesn’t live up to it.
The film takes place in May 1940, starting with the resignation of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Whilst the Conservatives want Lord Halifax to take over as Prime Minister, and continue peace talks with Hitler, he does not desire the position so the Conservatives have to go to the only person Labour would accept as Prime Minister so that they would form a Grand Coalition, Winston Churchill. Churchill however is unpopular with the party due to both his actions against peace talks with Hitler and a series of disasters in his prior career, most notably the Gallipoli Campaign, the Gold Standard, his policy on India and his support for Edward VII during the Abdication Crisis. Whilst Churchill is facing revolt from his party, he is also facing the looming threat of Hitler, with Hitler’s conquest of France nearly complete and the British army trapped at Dunkirk, making the desire for peace talks more profound. Now the overall story of the film is engaging and there was plenty of material in the real world for a compelling film, there just isn’t anything unique about the film. All of the plot points regarding conflict between Churchill and his party/the King and the issue over continuing the war or negotiating peace have been handled more effectively in other films, most notably Lincoln, with it feeling like this film was pitched as Lincoln but for Churchill. Now this in and of itself is not a bad thing, Lincoln was an excellent film, but the real issue with Darkest Hour is the script. Every single line in the film is so on the nose and predictable, going along with all the standard tropes you’d expect from a biopic of this style, every event that happens in the film is incredibly predictable and this robs the film of any suspense. The characters also suffer in this regard as well. Every character arc we see in the film is completely predictable from the moment we first see the characters and even for characters who have a bit more depth, they are underutilised in the film, making it so that there’s no real emotional core to the film, limiting the stakes in the film despite the severity of the events depicted, that severity alone cannot make a film emotionally compelling.
There are a few areas where the film works though, the first being the cast. Gary Oldman is excellent as Winston Churchill. The way Oldman works with the make-up (which I’ll get back to later) to create a full recreation of Churchill down to body language and voice is excellent and the times the film works are when we focus solely on Churchill. Oldman really sells the isolation felt by Churchill in the Cabinet War Rooms, the anger he feels over the other Conservatives still advocating for peace talks and his fears over what could happen if Hitler is able to launch an invasion of the UK, these elements all work well and it’s all due to Oldman’s performance rather than the script. The other performances meanwhile are strong but standard for this type of film. Lily James probably impresses the most outside of Oldman as she brings a high level of charm to her role as Churchill’s secretary. Ben Mendelsohn is solid as King George VI, getting the famous stammer right and effectively showing his respect for Churchill growing. There are solid turns from British staples Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane and David Schofield as Neville Chamberlain, Lord Halifax and Clement Atlee respectively, even though their character arcs are predictable. Surprisingly though, the weak link in the cast (aside from a slightly distracting vocal appearance from David Strathairn as FDR) is Kristin Scott Thomas, she is one of the best performers working today and she tries to give life to her performance as Clementine Churchill, but the character is so poorly written that her best efforts cannot save the character and she ultimately is forgettable.
The technical side of the film is another area where the film is strong. The obvious highlight of the film is the make-up work used to transform Gary Oldman into Winston Churchill. Aside from a few bits of body language and facial expressions there is little to no hint of Gary Oldman under the make-up, he is unrecognisable as Churchill and you believe you are watching Churchill. The cinematography is solid as well, highlighting the confined atmosphere of the Cabinet War Rooms, along with the isolation that Churchill feels during the film. The production design is of the high standard you’d expect from a Joe Wright film, the same being true of the costume design, whilst the score by Dario Marianelli is effective for the film.
Overall, outside of an incredible central performance from Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour is a fairly standard, generic biopic. It’s clearly trying to be a British equivalent of Lincoln but the script isn’t strong enough to elevate the film beyond a by-the-numbers and predictable look at Churchill. Maybe it would have played better if it hadn’t come out on the heels of Dunkirk and Their Finest, we’ll never know, but it is easily the weakest of those three and tells us nothing else about the Dunkirk evacuation that those films didn’t already tell us.
My Rating: 3/5