I’m going to start this negative review of Darkest Hour by saying good things about this film. First of all, this is the best movie ever made about Winston Churchill. That is faint praise considering the competition, but there it is. It shows Churchill not as a stalwart fighting leader but as a man plagued by self-doubt, making a hard decision to stay at war with Nazi Germany at a time when it’s not clear that that’s the right move. It also shows him doing ethically questionable things in service of the war effort, like lying to the British public and ordering a 4,000-strong garrison at Calais to launch an attack he knows to be suicidal. It makes a nice companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s superior Dunkirk, taking place at the same time and showing how decisions made in London impacted the soldiers trapped on that beach. For all that, I found much underwhelming about this World War II drama, including Gary Oldman’s highly touted performance in the lead role.
He portrays Churchill, an unpopular politician regarded as a hothead with a track record of failing at big projects. Nevertheless, in May 1940, he’s handed the prime minister’s office when Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) is deposed and his heir apparent Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) declines the job at such a perilous time. The keys to 10 Downing Street are a prize Winston has craved his whole life, but he knows that with France and Belgium about to fall and the British army trapped on Dunkirk, he may be set up to be the man who loses the empire. With many of his fellow Conservatives and King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) urging him to go to the Nazis and seek peace, Winston debates whether to heed their advice or keep fighting and hope that the army can be extricated.
Let me say that Oldman’s not bad here. This is an actor who can be quite bad at times (look no further than this past spring’s The Space Between Us for a terrible performance from him), but here his scene-chewing tendencies are ameliorated by the blustery character of Churchill, and he nicely conveys the man’s depressive tendencies and churlish temperament as he takes over the country at a stressful time. It certainly helps that he’s given all the good lines in Anthony McCarten’s script: “Would you stop interrupting me when I am interrupting you!” he thunders at Halifax. Yet his performance is devoid of any surprising elements, despite the film’s invitation to see Churchill in a new light, and his delivery of the prime minister’s famous speeches is curiously unmoving. The upcoming The Post has a better performance (by Meryl Streep) as a leader who makes the tough decisions despite being scared. Forget the best acting performances this year, this doesn’t even rank among Oldman’s top five performances in his career. (Fine, since I brought it up: Sid and Nancy, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, Air Force One, The Dark Knight, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy all feature better work from him.)
He’s nowhere near the biggest of this movie’s issues, though. Director Joe Wright is a stolid and unimaginative filmmaker who has been propped up by the industry and an adoring press on his side of the pond because his movies are so veddy, veddy British. The film doesn’t drag as it depicts the political intrigue swirling around Churchill, but the scenes between Winston and his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) are leaden. Having the proceedings seen from the point of view of Churchill’s new personal secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) is a rickety device, too, especially since the real-life Layton didn’t start working for Churchill until 1941.
By far the worst thing here is the scene late in the film when, shortly before making his final decision, Winston takes a ride on the Underground for only the second time in his life and meets with the ordinary people on the train, who all tell him to keep on with the struggle against the Nazi bastards. This scene felt fake to me as I was watching it, and that was before I did my historical research and found that it is indeed invented from whole cloth. The passengers even include a Caribbean man, as if Churchill would have ever been caught dead taking a black man’s advice on how to lead the country. The pandering to modern sensibilities left me feeling insulted, and it would be enough to derail a better movie than this. Not all that distinguishable from other tributes to stiff-backed British resolve in the face of adversity, Darkest Hour is overhyped, over-serious, and over here.
Starring Gary Oldman, Lily James, and Kristin Scott Thomas. Directed by Joe Wright. Written by Anthony McCarten. Rated PG-13.