Director: Joe Wright
Starring: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ronald Pickup, Ben Mendelsohn
Run Time: 125 mins
Much has been made of Darkest Hour for Gary Oldman’s transformative and unrecognisable performance as Winston Churchill in Joe Wright’s new film, Darkest Hour, who completely disappears and inhabits the role. Surely Oldman is a dead cert for the Oscar win after triumphing at the Golden Globes and also winning the SAG Award. Darkest Hour recounts Churchill’s first month in office and his mission to win over those initially sceptical and hostile towards him at a critical moment in the height of the Second World War.
However, in terms of how Darkest Hour functions as a piece of cinema though, it has some serious problems. From a historical viewpoint, the film is codswallop. A train sequence in particular towards the end of the film, pretty much derails the entire film from its tracks and it loses virtually all credibility. I could never get back on board with the film after this sequence threw me out so much and it hurts what is already a fairly mediocre film.
The script is often very expository, assumedly in order to allow people to have more historical context. Characters will often mention their background profile or to an illicit event, which made the delivery of dialogue very wooden and unnatural. Ronald Pickup and Stephen Dillane, who play Neville Chamberlain and Viscount Halifax are particularly bad offenders, who constantly explain their intentions to the audience. This whole film feels very theatrical, in a pantomime fashion which doesn’t do it any favours.
Perhaps the worst offender in this pantomime is Ben Mendelsohn’s performance as King George. Mendelsohn is a fine actor, who consistently puts in brilliant performances in many memorable films but he is simply miscast here. His vision of King George VI has an odd Australian twang and his stutter is utterly unconvincing. Oldman shares many scenes with Mendelsohn and it feels very odd witnessing two performances on different ends of the spectrum.
On the plus side, the film is well shot by Bruno Delbonnel. Darkest Hour has multiple memorable images, Delbonnel painting a suitably dark and gloomy picture of the perilous time this film is set in. A sequence where Churchill delivers a speech over the radio is particularly gripping visually and Delbonnel experiments to great success with lighting, often choosing to focus on Oldman’s figure and shadows.
Unfortunately, the film is also rather emotionally cold. Whilst Delbonnel employs these wonderful images, director Joe Wright is unable to instil any emotion to his audience. There are numerous cutaways to war scenes in Calais or Dunkerque which should show the devastation and the casualties of troops, but they never do and again, exaggerated cries in battle make the film feel only more theatrical. Many have compared Darkest Hour as a companion piece to Dunkirk. At least Darkest Hour does one thing right in having a single shot of the magnitude of civillian ships heading towards the shore, something which Dunkirk failed to do.
It’s a shame Darkest Hour isn’t a better film than it ought to be, especially considering the talent involved. Darkest Hour is simply a vehicle for Gary Oldman to give the performance of a lifetime, but other than good cinematography, there is nothing else in terms of substance. Joe Wright’s filmography in general has been a mixed bag. Luckily, Darkest Hour doesn’t stoop to that level of his most recent film, Pan, my least favourite film of 2015 – an atrocious, visually disgusting film that was a complete headache and embarassment for all involved. Instead, Darkest Hour is painfully average and whilst I was never bored by it, largely due to Gary Oldman’s sensational performance, the film’s storytelling is just too creaky to overlook.