In 2006, Clint Eastwood directed, produced and scored Flags Of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima. The former functions as the American viewpoint of the Battle of Iwo Jima whereas the latter offers a look at the same event from Japan’s point of view.
Whatever those Yanks can do, the Brits can do better – and a decade later, apparently. In 2017, director Christopher Nolan set his high-stakes, pulse-pounding, masterfully directed and wholly unique war film out to the world which was simply titled Dunkirk. This film took its audiences and put them next to the near 400,000 soldiers and had the former experience the harrowing tale of the latter with a speech from Winston Churchill tying the film off quite neatly.
Director Joe Wright now tells us the story of Winston Churchill’s ascendance to power, his handling of the evacuation at Dunkirk and his leadership at times of war hoping we find some empathy for the man who formerly resided at 10 Downing Street.
To paraphrase Churchill, it was important that Joe Wright “didn’t bugger this film up” because the lay man’s patience with politicians wears thin pretty fast.
Darkest Hour begins with Britain’s Labour Party calling for former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s resignation as it feels that his handling of the impending Nazi crisis is far from admirable. Against his will and better judgement, Chamberlain chooses the hard-nosed and abrasive Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman), the First Lord of Admiralty, as his successor as he is the only candidate both parties find themselves supporting.
The movie then chronicles the first month of Churchill’s tenure as the Prime Minister. With the allied forces of France and Holland surrendering to the Nazi wave, a country gripped by doubt and fear, and a section of Parliament looking to negotiate a peace treaty with the Fuhrer, Churchill is tasked with raising the morale of a dispirited nation while trying to turn a losing war around.
The character of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour can be compared to another one of Gary Oldman’s more enduring yet thankless characters, Commissioner Jim Gordon from The Dark Knight trilogy. Like Gordon, Churchill is the hero, strategist and statesman a set of people look to for guidance during wartime. The two characters share almost the same strategic acumen, steely resolve and putty-like moral malleability. Darkest Hour tirelessly works at showing the audience the pressures a man running the nation during a crisis deals with on a daily basis, and also how his style of leadership might not be suited for times before and after the crisis.
While the intent and the character of Winston Churchill are admirable, the execution of this Oscar-baiting biopic leaves something to be desired. Like Lincoln and The King’s Speech before it, Darkest Hour comes off as a series of well-filmed cliff notes (with a few laughs sprinkled in) with a serious lack of a unique identity to the proceedings.
The ever-eclectic and electric Gary Oldman plays Old Man Churchill to perfection in a performance that towers over those of many others that graced our screens in 2017. Oldman is an actor who takes his work so seriously that he once forgot his original accent because he spent a huge chunk of time learning new accents for every project he took up. A man so dedicated to the craft is physically incapable of giving a bad performance and hence is easily the best part of the film.
He and the equally excellent Kristin Scott Thomas add their own flavours to their roles while bringing in a sense of humanity to (the admittedly comedic lines scattered across) the film. Mr and Mrs Churchill come off as more full-fledged characters and have a more lived-in relationship because of the chemistry the actors share which includes scenes where The Lady Churchill both reprimands and coddles the Prime Minister for his many behavioural ticks.
The rest of the supporting cast, however, are not afforded the same privileges. Lily James, Ben Mendelsohn, Stephen Dillane, Ronald Pickup and many other buttoned-up British men that make up the cast of the film have seen better days and roles in movies that are on the same standing as this film or on perhaps a higher standing. You get the sense that they were hired to add gravitas to roles overflowing with schmaltz.
The movie’s score, even if it can be classified as both pretentious and quirky, can also be categorized as apt for it. And going hand in hand with the unique auditory experience are the film’s seamless make-up work and visual styling. The make-up stands head and shoulders above all other aspects of the visual aesthetic. Gary Oldman convinced legendary make-up artist Kazuhiro Tsuji to come out of retirement, and the latter’s expertise in the field shines on screen just as much as the former’s skill in his craft.
The high-level of schmaltz and a distinct lack of identity undercut Darkest Hour’s overall impact and memorability. Like, Letters From Iwo Jima outclassed Flags Of Our Fathers at almost every turn, Dunkirk objectively outshines Darkest Hour, with the latter offering little in terms of self-defence against the former’s onslaught of sheer craftsmanship and ambition.
While the movie is competently made, its core intent appears to be to get a legendary actor his long-overdue Oscar and the film might be remembered only as “that film that won Oldman an Oscar” and not much else. You’ll remember the poignancy of the “We will fight them at the beaches” speech at the end of Dunkirk more than the elation the same speech tries to induce at the end of this movie.