by Will Carsh | Staff Writer
“The Darkest Hour”, directed by Joe Wright and starring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, deals with Churchill’s crucial first decisions as Britain’s Prime Minister during World War II. It’s overall a well directed, written, and acted feature that builds towards a particularly emotional conclusion. However, one can’t help but feel that the film is perhaps a little too safe during most of its runtime, falling into the category of being good while rarely achieving true excellence.
There are two primary aspects at play that make the film consistently work. First, Wright opts to keep the focus of the film down to Churchill’s earliest days in office without going too much into his early life. The film is a bit of a snapshot, and is all the better for it, avoiding taking on too many threads at once. The audience gets a necessary view into Churchill’s familial life- Kristin Scott Thomas pulls an impressive performances as Clementine Churchill- but it isn’t the film’s focus. The film instead takes place in bunkers and offices for much of its runtime, building tension as Churchill faces opposition both from Germany and men within his own cabinet. The film’s primary conflict relies on whether or not Churchill should try and seek peace relations with Germany. Churchill recognizes that peace under Germany would be worse than total destruction, but Edward Wood (Stephen Dillane), Earl of Halifax, and previous Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) disagree. The two men conspire to take Churchill out of office, but neither are presented as downright villains: the film does both sides of the difficult argument justice. It becomes apparent throughout the film that decisions that may seem obvious to us now really weren’t in the time, a powerful message for today’s complex political climate.
The second aspect that drives the film into success is Gary Oldman’s shockingly good performance as Churchill. It is almost impossible to recognize him beneath the prosthetics, accent, and mannerisms. His nomination in the “Best Actor” category at the Oscars is well-deserved; Oldman owns every single scene that he’s in, fully embodying his character so well that it doesn’t even feel like a performance. His acting chops are especially crucial for this sort of character as Churchill was not necessarily the most likeable man in the world. The film doesn’t shy away from his harsher traits; in fact, the audience is first introduced to him being flat out cruel to Elizabeth Nel (Lily James), his personal secretary. However, both the script and Oldman’s performance do wonders in showing his more redemptive qualities. The pinnacle of the film is an incredibly moving scene towards the conclusion that features Churchill on a train with regular British citizens. Both writer Anthony McCarten’s dialogue and Oldman’s performance shine in the sequence, a moving, tender moment that carries more emotional and symbolic truth than historical accuracy.
In terms of downsides, the film rarely breaks the mold. With the exception of the scene above, nothing that happens in the film, in terms of both directing and story, that comes across as particularly surprising. An early scene hints at a slightly dysfunctional family dynamic within the Churchill home, but the film does little to expand on this. The film also ends rather abruptly and opts to conclude some of the major parts of Churchill’s story in text before the credits, and I can’t help but feel like its a missed opportunity. Wright’s directing can also be a little drab at times. He makes a few interesting decisions- the opening shot in particular is exciting- but also makes a few odd ones. A scene in which Churchill meets Ben Mendelsohn’s King Henry VI in particular stands out as awkwardly dark and blocked, regardless of artistic intent. Still, he generally proves to be quite good, just nothing that one wouldn’t expect from the genre. The same can be said of McCarten’s script, which is surprisingly witty and light in some places, but mostly just sticks to “good”. The film feels a bit like it’s designed specifically for Academy attention in the way that it minimizes risk taking in favor of consistency.
However, the timeliness of the story combined with Oldman’s performance are enough to make the movie easy to recommend. Even if the film takes few artistic risks, it builds to an emotionally satisfying finale that mostly makes up for the film’s safeness. If you’re looking for a good drama that features one of the best performances in recent memory, “The Darkest Hour” is an absolute must-see.