Film review: Darkest Hour (Director: Joe Wright)
By Sascha Krieger
Winston Churchill, Britain’s Prime Minister during the Second World War, never seems to go out of fashion as a leadership role model. Adding that the stubborn, choleric, idiosyncratic and anything but slick politician is a feast for every actor, it seems hardly surprising that a wave of Churchills has recently hit screens small and big. The fact that there seems to a shortage of leaders universally trusted these days might add to his popularity. Darkest Hour depicts the first few weeks of Churchill’s tenure as Prime Minister. Unloved and unwanted by his party, faced with the annihilation of the British forces as continental Europe collapses under the force of Hitlers blitzkrieg, under pressure to enter negotiations with Nazi Germany, Churchill fights what appears to be an impossible battle. Hell-bent on defeating Germany, his days seem to be numbered, his swift forced resignation inevitable. Almost faltering, he remains steadfast and wins the day – for now. The film ends with the temporary triumph of his „We shall never surrender“ speech, a pivotal moment in Britain’s battle for survival.
Gary Oldman plays Churchill. Almost unrecognisable in heavy make-up, he hits speech patters and body language on the mark. A quirky, highly choleric old man, pitiable and ridiculous, a witty, funny husband and sharp-witted political, a tough negotiator and efficient although completely unpolished orator: Oldman unfolds the entire Churchill, the image as well as the insecure, struggling, doubting man behind it. Especially his moments of faltering, of wondering whether his chosen path is the right one, Oldman nails, earning him a well-deserved Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination. Here’s where the film works: in its portrayal of a human, stubborn and self-confident but also full of doubt and increasingly fearful. Not a hero but a man of flesh and blood, vulnerable, afraid, insecure. One standout scene is when the king (Ben Mendelsohn), not a fan of his, visits Churchill in his humble bedroom and they quietly share their fear as well their resolve. A deeply human scene. An exception.
For most of the film, director Joe Wright choses either the quirky, comedic or the heroic, tragic. Churchill is either a bumbling old man or an impressive leader against all odds. His supporting cast is mostly two-dimensional: from Kristin Scott Thomas as his steadfast wife Clemmie and Lily James as the naive and admiring and, of course, ultimately wise young secretary (a stereotype recently employed more subtly and complexly opposite John Lithgow’s Churchill in the first season of the magnificent Netflix show The Crown) to Ronald Pickup’s weak Chamberlain and Stephen Dillane’s uptight plotter Halifax. Puppets employed to make Oldman’s Churchill shine. Only Mendelsohn os allowed at least some complexity. For the humanising serves one perfect only: to make the hero Churchill when it emerges even more impressive and admiring.
Ultimately, Darkest Hour is pure hagiography. Detail-rich, carefully discoloured images, a camera elegantly honing in on its subject, the narrow interiors in which much of the film takes place not overly claustrophobic but more of a resonating backdrop for the hero as a hard worker and honest labourer: the film is highly conventionally, narrated chronologically, using an efficient and highly effective narrative arc designed to let Oldman shine and Churchill triumph. The way in which he overcomes his doubts – with one key scene pure fiction – is as obvious as it is conventional. As the script goes bland and clichés turn the scene into a patriotic propaganda piece that Stalin-era Soviet film would be proud of. The earth-shatteringly kitschy, simplistic and frighteningly unashamed hero-worship of its conclusion wipes away all subtlety and mostly pretended ambivalence of the film’s earlier parts. It ends with a worrying lack of reflexion that located the film a lot closer to some of the leader’s cult mechanisms we’re seeing re-emerging today. As great as Oldman is, ultimately the film is a complete failure: unimaginative, drearily conventional, badly written and highly manipulative. If its Best Picture nomination at this year’s Oscars is a joke, it’s a bad one.