Starring Gary Oldman, Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas • Director Joe Wright • TLM Rating 1.5/4
“Much has been made of Oldman’s performance, but I can’t see why.”
In my review of “Dunkirk,” I praised it for bypassing the scenes of old men in boardrooms, pontificating on war strategies and playing politics with each other. Not only did that omission result in a more focused movie, but such scenes are irresistible bait for clumsy exposition, fortune cookie philosophy and stale, melodramatic monologues. Like walking into a room that suddenly goes quiet, making it incredibly obvious you were just the subject of conversation, “Darkest Hour” has arrived.
“Darkest Hour” also tells the story of the evacuation of Dunkirk, but instead of giving us the soldiers’ viewpoint, we see the events unfold from the perspective of the politicians, particularly Winston Churchill, played by Gary Oldman. We learn that Churchill was not a popular choice for Prime Minister, as his dogmatic approach to dealing with the Nazis painted him a warmonger in the eyes of many. But Churchill steadily wins over the people, his political rivals and King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) through a series of impassioned speeches and, well, more impassioned speeches. In the fictional world of movies, it’s amazing what a good speech can get you.
This film plays like it’s reconstructing a better film from memory. It’s a surface-level re-staging of events that banks on its own self-importance to capture the audience’s attention, rather than offering anything of actual substance. This should be a nuanced story of how a blustery old codger must convince a nation that—if only just this once—he might be the right person for the right time. Instead, the script falls back on cliché after cliché. There’s an awful scene where Churchill decides that the stuffiness of war rooms has grown wearisome, and he decides to walk the streets of London unattended, to cut out the middle-man of polls and statistics, and take the peoples’ temperature himself. He sits on a train where citizens stare at him while he rolls out a slew of witticisms and charms the living daylights out of everyone. With this scene alone, it’s clear that the film is more concerned with the public figure of Churchill than the actual man.
Much has been made of Oldman’s performance, but I can’t see why. It’s exhausting. I felt like I was watching Gary Oldman play W.C. Fields play Winston Churchill. He’s a loud, flaring, Saturday Night Live character. Not for one moment did I catch sight of a passionate, conflicted leader carrying the weight of his country, only the larger-than-life projection of one. There’s a scene where Mendelsohn is having lunch with Oldman, and the stark contrast between the two acting frequencies reminded me of when Bob Hoskins played opposite Roger Rabbit. Oldman is a powerhouse actor, and if you don’t break him in, he’ll run wild, which is why the director, Joe Wright, deserves a large part of the blame.
World War II will always be prime real estate for celluloid. The stakes are too high, the players are too well-known, and good and evil are too well defined. In the same way that audiences find comfort in the familiar images of Batman or Darth Vader, so they do for Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler.
“Darkest Hour” leans too heavily on familiarity, and fails to make a compelling argument as to its own reason for being, other than pointing at Churchill, elbowing the audience and saying, “what a character!”
Hunter Lanier is a Houston-based film reviewer who appears on the Critics Circle podcast from the Houston Film Critics Society.
Cover image: Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour (2017). Photo by Jack English © 2017 Focus Features