When I read that Gary Oldman had smoked at least 400 of Winston Churchill’s favorite cigars, Romeo y Julieta, during shoots for Darkest Hour, I thought, “That’s stupid.” But there’s clearly a dedication found in Oldman’s craft, and he’s virtually always performing at an elite level. For the first 45 minutes of director Joe Wright‘s historical retelling of Churchill as the United Kingdom’s prime minister and decision-making leading up to the Battle of Dunkirk, the film worked. It flowed well and Oldman was incredibly convincing as Churchill, even disappearing in most moments as the late cigar-smoking, silver-tongued statesman.
However, there’s a notable moment where the film reveals its true self: a repetitive film that even Oldman cannot save.
World War II has begun and the Axis powers are pushing down on the United Kingdom. In the face of adversity, the UK’s Opposition Party has forced the resignation of Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) as prime minister. Against the will of many, Churchill (Oldman) took his place and is immediately met with animosity from those who see him as an erratic, impulsive individual. They’re not too far off the mark, but Churchill quickly separates himself from his predecessor: he refuses to enter peace negotiations with Axis leaders Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini even with the possibility of losing the entire British army.
The film chronicles Churchill’s decision-making process leading up to the Battle of Dunkirk, so there are moments ripe with intensity … in the first 45 minutes. Oldman’s ability to transform his voice and mannerisms to match that of Churchill paint a wonderful example of excellence in acting. He’s far-and-away the best thing about Darkest Hour, and the film knows it to a fault. The surrounding cast of characters fail to leave an impact and are written poorly down the stretch. Writer Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything) never shies away from propping up Oldman during speeches and moments of introspection, but Lily James, for instance, is left hanging in the rearview mirror. James plays Elizabeth Layton, Churchill’s transcriptionist, and she hardly gets her fair piece of the lion’s share. All signs point to her character being important from the moment we see her get berated by Churchill for using single-spacing instead of double-spacing, to the moment she sheds tears as typing a certain order for stranded soldiers. Yet, the film departs from her and anyone else it bothered to introduce in the first act: King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) , Clementine Churchill (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane). This two-hour adventure failed in part because it relied too much on Oldman and never gave me a reason to care about anyone else.
Wright’s formula became quite dry, as well, with the film clearly relying on speech, speech, humor, speech, speech. It moves from the war cabinet, to Parliament, to Oldman’s home for a quick minute and then repeat. The beats were so doggone repetitive that, by the second act, I’m wondering when this story becomes compelling. I was roped in initially by Oldman’s bravado, but I soon became over-saturated with his speeches and off-hand humor. This film never moved me, and it surely doesn’t move along its plot at anything other than a snail’s pace. There needs to be payoff after being patient, and Darkest Hour numbs me by the time it arrives to what should’ve been the more important speeches.
Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel does attempt to get cute with his shots, though, and some were breaths of fresh air. The shot inside a boy’s hand looking at an overhead airplane was welcoming; the red hue reflecting off Churchill’s face in a dark room while he addresses the UK on-air — these moments are refreshing and add flavor, but — say it with me — they’re found in the first hour. A slew of uninspiring shots follow, including cheesy transitions (looking up at the sky as the camera zooms out and bad CGI ensues as bombs fall over a town). There’s even a sequence that left me scratching my head as Churchill was celebrating with his family. The camera cuts from Churchill to his family and they’re wearing gas masks. Camera cuts back to Churchill and then to his family again, and they’re normal. I mean, what’s the point of trying to establish an abstract feel when the rest of the film is grounded in normalcy?
Once the film proves it’ll never break away from its lull, I often glanced at my watch hoping the film would just end. Oldman’s ability to dive into Churchill’s character, which is him vying for an Oscar, isn’t enough to make up for the massive flaws elsewhere.
The biggest flaw? Darkest Hour isn’t only an hour, which might’ve made this a film worth watching.
I attended an advanced screening thanks to Focus Features and Allied Integrated Marketing. ❤
Darkest Hour is rated PG-13, runs 2 hours and 5 minutes and opens in theaters on Dec. 22, 2017.