A flawed film that does little in the way of drama but is just about held up by a great lead performance.
Churchill, we are now presented with another biopic about the former wartime Prime Minister with Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour. Gary Oldman takes up the mantle in this latest depiction of the British icon, but aside from the actor’s excellent performance, the film is ultimately disappointing and predictable.
The plot is, of course, centred around Oldman’s Churchill and follows his first month in the office of Prime Minister after being reluctantly chosen by his peers. After being officially appointed by King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), Churchill faces the huge task of turning around Britain’s war effort which, up until this point, has been a disaster. However, the new leader’s policy of “victory at all costs” is challenged by his former rivals, including Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) and Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), who would rather pursue peace talks. As the opposition against him continues to mount, Churchill’s aim to both keep the nation together and better the country’s war campaign becomes increasingly difficult.
It will be no surprise to know that Gary Oldman’s performance in the film is nothing short of excellent. Oldman’s look for Churchill is certainly helped by the use of prosthetics, which completely transform the actor’s face, however, underneath all the make-up can be found a very passionate performance in which Oldman successfully gives us a far spunkier Churchill than we are used to. The supporting cast is also good, Kristin Scott Thomas, in particular as Churchill’s wife Clemmie. There are also stellar performances from Stephen Dillane as Viscount Halifax, who in some ways could be considered the film’s antagonist, and Ben Mendelsohn who gives us a great portrayal of King George VI.
As impressive as the performances are though, less so is the content of the film itself. Much of Darkest Hour is obviously spent focusing on Churchill himself, but unfortunately, there’s not really enough drama to raise the stakes of the film and give us a sense of importance as to what is happening. The dramatic tension is lost on the fact that, in the end, we already know roughly what will transpire before the credits roll. Joe Wright has done his best to add tension to the film, particularly during the meetings of the War Cabinet, but unfortunately, a lot of this feels quite forced.
Most of the conflict throughout the film is centred around the fact that no one sees Churchill as the right man for the job and everyone agrees that his attitude and judgement should see him kicked out of office. However, aside from Viscount Halifax, most of those that oppose themselves to Churchill seem to be doing so just for the sake of it. After a while, it really does feel like the film is stacking the odds against Churchill just so it’s all the greater when he inevitably defies them.
There is also a lot of over the top, Oscar bait-type moments. There are multiple scenes in which the music builds up and people look over at each other in anticipation just as Churchill is about to say something particularly rousing, and more often than not, it feels like too much. The stand out example of this is one cringe-inducing scene on a tube towards the end, that feels very out of place with the rest of the film and brings to a halt any sort of drama that had been building beforehand.
Darkest Hour is a by no means a bad film, and there are certainly worse Churchill biopics out there. Disappointingly though, it offers very little in terms of political drama and forces certain elements that make it feel all a bit ridiculous. However, an excellent performance from Gary Oldman just about holds the film up, and might just nab him a long overdue Oscar.
Darkest Hour, directed by Joe Wright, is distributed in the UK by Universal Pictures, certificate PG.