I remember when I watched Atonement in a history class, and it was a rather awful experience. Beyond the often noted tracking shot taking place on the battle of Dunkirk, I also found the whole film to be indulgent and frustrating – and the romance to be contrived. I recalled that experience because watching Darkest Hour, the first thing that I was thinking about was that this movie was tailor made for that exact same history class because the teacher did not care in the slightest about his own students. Darkest Hour just felt like that movie for history class that you ended up sleeping through and it was the reason you ended up failing your assignment, because you were supposed to write an essay about what you were watching and yet you couldn’t help but doze off because you felt nothing.
Gary Oldman stars as Winston Churchill, as we are told the story of his early days as the Prime Minister of Britain, just as Adolf Hitler was circling around them during WWII. I think that a basic history textbook would already have told this story better than Joe Wright had done so, because he isn’t adding any other dimension to the story from Churchill’s point of view. It feels like a rather conservative perspective about Churchill, which is in part where Darkest Hour carries that feeling of seeming so disconnected. Disconnected in part because you know your history lesson would have already told this story to you, and in part because if you’ve at least felt attentive, you would know Winston Churchill was not a hero – and Darkest Hour doesn’t ever add a fresh perspective about him, it just feels like a broad stroke.
Yes, the production design is rather exquisite but even then, there’s nothing about the overall look of the film that stands out – because it all feels told in the most plain manner akin to any other period piece. It feels so plain because there’s nothing to Joe Wright’s direction that ever captures the eye other than his need to show off what more he can do within his own setting. And because of the fact that this is where his focus lies, it still presents itself as is, a basic biopic about an influential historic figure. It soon struck me this is why I ended up liking Hanna more than any other Joe Wright I had seen, because it kept everything within a sense of boundaries and tells everything in a quick and straightforward manner. It wasn’t in any need to show off much more beyond its narrative, something that I wish Joe Wright didn’t always have to do with his period pieces.
What will undoubtedly remain the most discussed aspect of Darkest Hour is Gary Oldman’s performance as Winston Churchill. Because he looks nearly unrecognizable in the part, the makeup team deserves credit for their own work – but I still am not convinced by his own appearance that he is Winston Churchill. I’m not convinced because even under the heavy makeup, he still looks absolutely ridiculous and the moment he starts shouting is when everything begins to feel more artificial. Whether or not that is what Winston Churchill is like does not matter anymore, but seeing Gary Oldman deliver as Winston Churchill only struck me as Gary Oldman playing Gary Oldman, because him yelling is common from him as an actor. It never feels believable, it just comes off the way it looks, ridiculous.
This feels like a bit of a companion piece next to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, which shows the war right from the experience of being up close, witnessing the trauma of soldiers take place in front of our eyes from different points of view. The only difference however will be that there was at least an interesting experiment being performed with Dunkirk whereas Darkest Hour doesn’t feel it serves any purpose other than to merely exist as is. In very brief moments it grabs you but at the end, everything just feels so pointless. There’s not really much of note that takes place in Darkest Hour, it only reminds you of that time you were bored stiff watching something in history class which eventually became the reason you failed said class – for failing to complete an essay.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Focus Features.
Directed by Joe Wright
Screenplay by Anthony McCarten
Produced by Tim Bevan, Lisa Bruce, Eric Fellner, Anthony McCarten, Douglas Urbanski
Starring Gary Oldman, Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas
Release Year: 2017
Running Time: 125 minutes