In any other year, Darkest Hour would be just another stagey film destined to rack up award nominations and critical plaudits, but in 2017 something is a bit different. I won’t even say it has much to do with the resurgence of the Nazi party. In part, this added meaning has to do with a clearly villainous Conservative party (portrayed here as more weaselly and preservationist looking than openly and loudly reveling in idiocy) trying to placate an expansionist dictator despite every indication that there is no stopping them. Instead, I’m focusing on the obvious connection, that to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.
While that film took a look at the many sides of that retreat from those on the ground in France, to those flying above the English Channel, to those sailing to aid in the evacuation, this takes a look at what was going on back at home in the field of politics leading up to that moment. In fact, chop off the text conclusion of this film, and it would serve as a perfect and natural double feature. Aside from one brief scene in Calais (which is no match for the oner on the beach in Atonement which serves a similar function) and a couple brief establishing shots, the action is mostly restricted to its focus on the politics at the expense of any look at what’s happening on the ground. It’s closer to the Twelve O’Clock High approach of examining the toll of sending good, young men to their death and faced with no good options.
Like Dunkirk it largely eschews the battlefields, only here it does so for the house of Winston Churchill, Westminster Palace, the drawing room of Buckingham Palace, and the claustrophobic undergrounds of 10. It’s a very stagey set up filled with long shots and plenty of steady shots that all look very lovely (it is a Joe Wright film and one shot by the great Bruno Delbonnel at that), but it does convey that very prestige approach to the material that is to be expected from these end of the year films.
It’s also very much a picture focused on Churchill and his struggles both personal and professional in a short but crucial and trying time in Britain’s life. Oddly enough, the film only actually depicts the very beginnings of Britain’s “Darkest Hour” but it feels more appropriate than calling the film Finest Hour (in reference to a Churchill speech from the period) because there truly is a sense of resignation that hangs over much of the film. The much-vaunted British determination in the face of seeming collapse far from reflected in the faces of low level employees grasping for information and members of parliament struggling to maintain the British Empire in the face of the imminent and eventual collapse of the French. Even Churchill for all his bombast and blustering has that look of a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders (of course this is repeated in the movie) and not just from his age, girth, and at times seemingly barely functional alcoholism.
I’ve beat around the bush enough though, as a vehicle for Churchill this film largely comes down to the man portraying him and there are few if any actors with the ability of Gary Oldman. To call the man a chameleon would be an understatement to his abilities and it has gotten almost tiresome to say that he is unrecognizable in his performance. I won’t go so far here, but only because you can see it in his eyes if you stare long enough. He really does disappear into the role both from an acting and visual perspective without it feeling merely like someone doing an impression (can’t say the same about the one scene vocal impression of FDR). It’s the rare chance for an actor to dive into a role where their big stagey Oscar-baiting performance could be considered as underplaying the role considering the real-life figure being portrayed. He’s got the bluster and the mumbling talk down pat, and he commands almost every room he appears in. In fact, perhaps Wright and Oldman’s greatest achievement is somehow making him feel small in certain scenes that wordlessly convey the balance of power.
The film has all the requisite moments of very British humor to keep things from being weighed down too much (the true secret to their biopics) and a solid supporting cast. Ben Mendelsohn ably plays King George VI in a role greatly benefited by his relative lack of film exposure (seriously, it’s amazing how few films have featured him) with a portrayal that’s a far cry from The King’s Speech (and far subtler too). Kristin Scott Thomas likewise does her bit as Churchill’s wife, but her job is little more than be supportive of and get in a few cracks with her husband while Lily James serves as generic typist/audience surrogate and Ronald Pickup and Stephen Dillane have a competition to see who can be the most sniveling as Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax respectively. Samuel West actually has the most interesting of the supporting roles and he barely speaks or emotes.
So often, I can sum up my review of a biopic as “it certainly is a biopic”. Like documentaries, they generally entertain me enough and have a low barrier to succeed, but rarely can they become anything more to me. I won’t say Darkest Hour escapes that in the way something like Selma does, but it does rise to the upper range of the typical biopic largely because like that film, it is heavily focused on a single character in a short period of their life which lessens the typical biopic beats. It also does convey a still very relevant message of hope in the face of the seeming end of everything you hold dear, but the characters outside from Churchill are tissue thin and it never completely escapes feeling like just another biopic. It’s no Atonement or Hanna in terms of Wright’s filmography, but it’s a great rebound from Pan that proves he truly has a command of style and of period pieces.