Darkest Hour (PG) | Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Joe Wright, US, 2017, 125 mins

Cast: Gary Oldman, Stephen Dillane, Ronald Pickup, Lily James, Ben Mendelsohn, Kristin Scott Thomas

Review by James Bartlett

It’s the early days of WWII, and Hitler’s forces are marching relentlessly across Europe with England in their sights – defeat could be weeks or even days away. Prime minister Neville Chamberlain (Pickup) and his “peace” accords with Hitler have proved worthless, and there’s a demand for new leadership.

Accepting the challenge is controversial Winston Churchill (Oldman), elected only because Viscount Fairfax (Dillane) refused clearly seems like a poisoned chalice.

Fairfax and Chamberlain are still certain that negotiations with Hitler are the only way out, and if they can get the rabble-rousing Churchill to admit on record he won’t even consider it, they could force another change of leadership.

Also stepping into this crisis is secretary is Elizabeth (James), who has to get used to Churchill’s erratic and colorful behavior – something his wife Clemmie (Scott-Thomas) has long since dutifully accepted.

King George VI (Mendelsohn) is a friend of Halifax, and, like many others, expresses private fears that Churchill, for all his bluster, cannot stop the inevitable Nazi invasion, especially when the entire British military forces have retreated to Dunkirk.

With the days ticking by, how can Winston rally his forces (and the British people) to his way of thinking: that they must fight until the end, no matter what the cost.

If that sounds like rather a dull summary of Darkest Hour, that’s because it’s perhaps impossible to avoid. There aren’t really many moments of explosive tension here because the drama revolves around Churchill, his speeches, and the behind-the-scenes machinations trying to make him agree to something he cannot imagine: negotiating with that “house painter.”

Unfortunately, with Dunkirk, Churchill, “The Crown” and “Churchill’s Secret” all in recent memory (not that Churchill is ever far from popular consciousness anyway), Darkest Hour struggles to be more compelling or different from what we have seen before.

It’s true to say “Well, how could it be?”, but here, with some wincingly on-the-nose dialogue and many scenes that seem predictable (and even recognizable) wrapped among Wright’s unspectacular direction (how many times do characters look upwards for an uncomfortably long time so a crane shot can pull up into the stars?), the ending that we already know seems a very long time in coming.

Also, nearly every moment seems to happen in rooms bereft of electricity, but always having one spotlight or ray of sun seemingly aimed just-so.

Poor Scott-Thomas gets barely half a dozen scenes – all of which more or less involve her saying “Don’t give up, Winston” – and other possible dramatic storylines (such as how she and Winston’s children suffered at the hands of his ambition; Churchill’s battles with depression; how King George VI came around to Churchill’s way of thinking; the phantom of Gallipoli) all get very short shrift.

In fact, the scenes between Halifax and Chamberlain were almost more interesting because I at least had little idea about their collaboration – nor that Chamberlain, dying of cancer, gave his support to Churchill at the last minute. So much for his epitaph as a complete failure (and as an aside, Pickup, the journeyman actor, deserves recognition for his performance).

So, what we’re really talking about here is Oldman’s performance: everything rests on his rumpled shoulders. He’s become the front-runner for the Oscars it seems, though since depictions of Churchill don’t usually go unrewarded, it would be rather a dull crown on his otherwise diverse, entertaining and wide career.

Nevertheless, he’s as excellent as you’d expect, and should he win the golden statue I’d have no complaint.

Still, it was rather an eye-rolling moment when the doddery Churchill suddenly turns on his heels to the badgering press photographers and makes the “V” sign to them; it can’t have escaped notice that it seemed a repeat of when he did that in Sid & Nancy, his real breakout some unbelievable 31 years ago.

These days we’re spoiled for choice if you want to learn about Winston Churchill, and while this is fine enough, it’s really only Oldman that, appropriately perhaps, makes it stand out from the crowd.