Darkest Hour ★★½ review

by Alistair Ryder

This year’s awards season is proving to be somewhat unpredictable, with nobody knowing for sure which film will be taking home the Best Picture statuette in the new year. However, one prediction that has been widely made ever since the trailer for Darkest Hour premiered is that there is no way Gary Oldman will walk away empty handed from the Oscars, due to his leading role as Winston Churchill. The performance itself is the stereotypical awards baiting performance you’d expect from any actor in this role; no room for subtlety, but plenty of room for “You can’t handle the truth!”-style monologues delivered at an increasingly deafening volume.

Darkest Hour; dir.: Joe Wright; UK 2017, 125 minutes. Our Rating: ★★½/5

And it is this total lack of subtlety that derails Darkest Hour from the earliest moments. Oldman certainly looks the part, yet that is never due to his performance- instead, the real stars are the hair and make-up designers, who ensure the audience feels like they are seeing the real Churchill, even as the performance suggests we are seeing nothing other than Gary Oldman shamelessly begging for the forever elusive Academy Award. Oldman’s performance is completely unrestrained, and never believable for a single second. It’s definitely worthy of an award for “most acting”, but as for giving the year’s best performance, that accolade should be reserved for a performer who disappeared in to their character’s personality, instead of merely disappearing in to the excessive make-up design.

Starting in 1940, the film opens with Neville Chamberlain’s resignation, after a widespread vote of no confidence from both sides of parliament. The Conservative party need a prime minister both sides can approve of- and so all eyes turn to the only man who has taken a seat on both sides of the house, Winston Churchill. Despite a reputation as a master orator, Churchill himself is characterised as something of a buffoon, a loose cannon ill suited to the conventions of leading the country and inspiring confidence even within his own party. He is tactically reckless in his attempts at rescuing the British army from occupied France, and still aims to increase the war efforts he himself is struggling to manage. He may have been voted the Greatest Briton of all time in numerous polls, yet Joe Wright’s film treats him as nothing less than Britain’s very own clueless Donald Trump equivalent (something amplified by brief mentions of his other foreign affairs “achievements”).

Not affording any reverence to the beloved persona of Churchill is the most inspired move in the fairly asinine screenplay by Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything). The film equally alludes to his successes and failures in office, never openly stating that his unconventional personality made him a perfect fit for Downing Street. Unfortunately, it does this by making him a comedic imbecile, instead of somebody with decades of governmental experience; it’s hard to suspend disbelief at the sight of, for example, Churchill accidentally flashing his genitals at his assistant (on more than one occasion), alien to the norms of polite society despite having held elected office in some capacity for countless years prior. It gives the character an arc, leading up to his nation unifying post-Dunkirk speech, yet it does the film no favours characterising him as such an outlandish figure to begin with.

The spectre of Dunkirk hangs heavily over Darkest Hour. By which I mean, Christopher Nolan’s experimental action extravaganza from earlier this year, which documented the sheer horrors unfolding across the channel with pure cinematic bombast. Joe Wright’s lack of comparable skill as director means we are treated to many key scenes from “Operation Dynamo” replicated by somebody with a less assured visual sensibility; the practical effects of Nolan’s film are replaced here by some of the worst CGI in recent memory. Heck, Joe Wright has even managed to save money by using CGI boats, crossing the CGI channel to Dunkirk – only adding to the distinct lack of realism.

Meanwhile, Oldman’s performance commands every frame by default, not helped by a screenplay that increasingly leads Churchill in to the most contrived circumstances imaginable; everything seems designed for Oldman’s Oscar showreel, instead of servicing a believable account of important historical events. If you can get through the fantastically silly sequence set on the London Underground (the most offending sequence in the entire film) without cringing, it’s an understatement to say you are a less cynical viewer than I.

If you need a cinematic account of Dunkirk this year, watch Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster, which will leave you with the same PTSD as the soldiers sent to battle. Despite having deeper roots in reality, Darkest Hour is a minor effort in comparison, anchored by a lead performance that never feels believable for a single second and is cursed with a screenplay that is unbelievable to the point of being frequently nonsensical.

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