You know over-saturation is becoming a problem in the film industry when not only two Winston Churchill biopics are produced, but also two accounts of the Dunkirk landings are showcased. Whilst Christopher Nolan’s piece documented the events in the French town, Joe Wright’s tale focuses on the Prime Minister’s (played by a heavily made-up Gary Oldman) attempts to lay the groundwork for the rescue operation.
With the threat of a German invasion looming, Neville Chamberlain resigns at the most inopportune moment due to pressure from the fellow members of parliament. The cabinet and King’s first choice, Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), refuses the opportunity to take over the mantle, leaving senior figures no choice but to reluctantly offer Churchill the job. The rest of the film chronicles the early part of his tenure, refusing to budge from his ‘no-peace’ standpoint.
The selling point of Wright’s piece is undoubtedly Oldman’s central performance; so towering is his presence, it’s hard to imagine anyone clutching the Oscar from his grasp. Every aspect of the portrayal is impeccable, from the hunched walk to the rambling voice, flickering seamlessly between stuttering and explosive shouting. These outbursts are witnessed first-hand by his wife Clementine (a woefully underused Kristen Scott Thomas) and personal secretary Elizabeth (Lily James), the latter seemingly doing nothing other than transcribing her employer’s words.
Churchill’s enemies here are much closer to home; rather than Hitler and Mussolini, Chamberlain and Halifax pose the most tangible threat, with the pair’s pro-peace outlook leaving them no alternative but to attempt to create a vote of no confidence. Rather than having the kind of explosive political backstabbing present in House of Cards, this is far more sedate and calculated – and ultimately boring.
This boredom is a result of the monotony of the scenes themselves; Chamberlain and Halifax suggest peace talks are the way forward before Churchill dismisses the idea. What should be a minor strand becomes a major point of conflict, meaning that the film becomes less impactful as it progresses.
It’s not for the lack of trying that this piece fails; Joe Wright has proven himself to be a stylish director in the past – think of the famous beach scene in Atonement or action sequences in Hanna – but barring some pleasant cinematography and the occasional roaming camera, everything is shackled by Anthony McCarten’s lacklustre screenplay. His most notable work, The Theory of Everything, was built on tender conversations and pacey narrative progression, elements that are sorely lacking here.
What they both share in common is a wonderful leading performance, and this is ultimately what Darkest Hour will be remembered for. The expert hair and makeup design facilitates Oldman to succeed; unfortunately, the rest of the film is in dire need of a makeover.