Not that one can reasonably expect a filmmaker to predict a future political climate and not that one can then use that unreasonable expectation as critical ammunition, but it's worth mentioning that Joe Wright’s timing feels epically off in making a biopic focused on a blustery leader brazenly barking about his government’s need to plunge into war. At least Winston Churchill was up against the Nazis, which makes it easy for history to side with him. Wright certainly does. He idolizes the famous figure. Of course, all of that isn’t reason enough to bash Wright’s Darkest Hour, but thankfully, the movie invites heavy criticism in many other ways.
It’s a nearly pointless story to tell from a dramatic perspective because it’s simply two hours of following a polarizing politician who fears Hitler and has to make others see the dictator’s threat for what it is. Wright makes Churchill the rightest man that ever righted and everyone else an idiot who didn’t believe him until they did. An entire movie about a guy trying to convince others that Hitler is the kind of jerk that peace talks won’t fly with certainly struggles to generate a sense of urgency in this day and age.
Added to this is Wright’s increasingly empty visual flourishes. He shoots pretty nonsense like a shot of a plane flying overhead and the camera peering through a child’s curled hand as it tightens, blocking out our view of the plane. It signifies nothing other than, duh, war ends badly for many fighting it, but it’s a neat visual trick nonetheless, so Wright can’t resist showing it off. It’s not like he has anything else to say or share.
So the movie ambles along, perpetually making its primary point that Churchill had the balls to stand up to Hitler when everyone else in the British government was preparing to lie down. As a character in the movie, Churchill has virtually no arc. He’s convinced that the only way to survive WWII is to fight back against the evil advancing forces and he’s clearly right. He has to get everyone else on his side, but only through a stubborn refusal to do anything else. He has to do what’s in the best interest of the citizens, so he polls them and they loudly inform him that, yup, he’s right. The obstacles he has to overcome in parliament never seem all that challenging because everyone else is depicted as a wussy weasel.
There’s nothing to hold onto here, other than the coattails of a protagonist who is hoisted above everyone else so adoringly that he’s deemed incapable of making a mistake. This makes for a very bland tale of a powerful man proving why it’s good that he has power and why it’s okay that he’s sort of a jerk (because his enemy is a much bigger jerk). There’s an undercurrent of rebellion in Churchill’s party that acts as an inert subplot since Wright makes the political naysayers such snivelling losers that we’re clearly supposed to not take them seriously.
All Darkest Hour has on its mind is unabashed love for Churchill, which makes this a one-note affair devoid of the complexities that are generally required to make stuffy biopics remotely interesting. The script by Anthony McCarten also lacks the crackling political discourse that made a similarly themed and structured biopic like Spielberg’s Lincoln so richly engaging. The conversations and arguments in Darkest Hour mainly fall flat and exist only for star Gary Oldman to loudly cry out regularly enough to ensure that he doesn’t suffocate under the numerous pounds of latex.
This is Wright’s primary aim behind the camera, to tilt the movie in Oldman’s favour and make his boisterous performance the key to appreciating Churchill. The director certainly succeeds in making his lead actor the centre of attention and while Oldman’s performance is appropriately padded with scenery chewing, it’s all exactly what one would expect from Gary Oldman playing Winston Churchill. He’s big, brash, and completely obvious. There are no parts of the performance that feel like anything more than standard Gary Oldman now caked with makeup.
For an example of the actor unveiling something new, one need only look to his taut turn in the 2011 adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. That was Oldman poking into corners of his craft that haven’t been overly explored. This is all too familiar and uninspired. The rest of the cast is fine, from Ben Mendelsohn as stuttering King George to Kristen Scott Thomas as Churchill’s ever ebullient wife, but the script gives them little to work with since this is proudly and firmly the Churchill show.
Considering the movie’s focus and constrained chronology, there’s potential here for an intriguing examination of the wartime political process, except again Wright comes up short. Attempts at clever maneuvering and back door deals are treated with a clumsy artlessness, because Wright’s entire point is that Churchill is always more right than everyone else. While his in-party opponents plot to overthrow the freshly appointed Prime Minister via a possible vote of no confidence, Churchill simply schools them by being loud and steadfast in his position that the Nazis are absolute bastards.
He does come up with the novel idea to evacuate besieged troops at Dunkirk by sending out small civilian boats from the English coast, but when you’ve actually seen the impressive mission on display in Chris Nolan’s triumphant blockbuster released mere months earlier, Wright’s dry delivery of the plan isn’t exactly a stirring alternative.
It’s tough to find much worth in Wright’s work of late. The filmmaker who began his feature directing career with a lovely adaptation of Pride & Prejudice and followed that up with the sharp, sumptuous Atonement has more recently made a stiffly posturing version of Anna Karenina, which he then followed up with the disastrous, hideous Pan, an unwarranted, unwanted prequel to J.M. Barrie’s classic children’s novel. Darkest Hour is another stumble. Biopics are generally tempted by conventionalism and Wright’s take on this often boring genre makes no attempt to break new ground. Not that all biopics have to meaningfully innovate, but it’s nice when they at least have the lights on upstairs.