UK Release Date: 12th January 2018
Runtime: 125 minutes
Director: Joe Wright
Writer: Anthony McCarten
Starring: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Ben Mendelsohn, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane
Synopsis: Despite the fact he’s no one’s first choice, Winston Churchill ascends to the office of Prime Minister and is immediately faced with evacuating hundreds of thousands of British troops from the beaches at Dunkirk.
It’s hard to begrudge Gary Oldman a big awards season run. He has consistently been one of the most consistent, diverse and interesting British actors working in the film industry but, despite a 35-year career on the big screen, the glittering gowns and sharp suits of awards season have mostly eluded him. That’s not the case this year and Oldman has just won his first Golden Globe for playing a formidable Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, from Atonement director Joe Wright.
This is a film that’s all about Oldman, who portrays Churchill as he takes office in May 1940 following the resignation of Neville Chamberlain, played by Ronald Pickup in a role originally pegged for John Hurt before his tragic death. The new PM is far from first choice, either within his own party or for King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), but is immediately thrust into dealing with the catastrophic prospect of evacuating hundreds of thousands of troops from Dunkirk.
Like Churchill himself, Oldman fills every room both physically and figuratively in Darkest Hour. Caked in slightly distracting prosthetics and make-up, Oldman’s performance is certainly compelling on a level of physicality, with the actor entirely convincing as a representation of Churchill’s voice and mannerisms. Unfortunately, whether it’s his own choice or via over-zealous direction from Joe Wright, much of what he does involves him sitting in the corner of a room for a while and then exploding with shouty, spittle-flecked rage. The team putting together the clips for the Best Actor nominations montage will have an embarrassment of speaker-bursting riches to choose from here.
Such is the bombastic vastness of the central performance that it leaves Darkest Hour feeling rather under-powered in every other fashion. The main supporting female characters, played by Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily James, are left with almost nothing to do, despite the influence the film seems to believe they wield over Churchill. Ben Mendelsohn, chameleon-like and almost unrecognisable in a rare non-villainous role, fares slightly better, but his King George VI is something of a damp squib.
It’s intriguing that Darkest Hour is performing so strongly in awards season. It’s only the year’s second best film about Dunkirk and, indeed, Oldman isn’t even the best Churchill of the last 12 months. For all of Wright’s bluster and the all-consuming, cacophonous chorus of Oldman’s performance, the film is somewhat dull and impotent as historical drama. By the time Churchill decides to implement policy based on the focus group of a half-empty Tube carriage, the film’s grabs for poignancy seem exceptionally strained. If real prime ministers decided policy like that, we would end up hanging James Corden and electing Jeremy Clarkson to a top Cabinet post. That’s the stuff of dystopia.
Pop or Poop?
Gary Oldman fills the screen with bluster as Winston Churchill, but Darkest Hour doesn’t even come close to being a definitive take on Britain’s most-portrayed historical figure. Joe Wright pushes supporting characters to the periphery and delivers a pretty tired, dull take on a segment of British history that has been showcased far better elsewhere this year.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.