Set just after Winston Churchill’s appointment as prime minister, Darkest Hour details his struggle against Conservative elites’ insistence of peace talks with Nazi Germany during the events at Dunkirk.
You don’t really need me to tell you about Oldman’s performance, this seems to be the main focus for other critics and they are all glowing. Oldman disappears into a prosthetic that cuts a remarkable silhouette and is still able to do wonders emoting Churchill’s rage and eccentricity. What I look for when an actor is playing an actual person is not so much a copy of their behaviour or an exact likeness but a believable evoking of that person. Though here were moments in which I was could swear I was looking at a replica of Churchill, but take that with a grain of salt because I also said that about Brian Cox’s performance in Churchill.
Joe Wright, director of Atonement, backs Oldman up with filmmaking artistry. He makes full use of the frame and sound in order to convey emotions, messages and themes. We see Churchill’s loneliness, his doubts manifest, his fears of a destroyed Europe; the feelings of a leader who does not have the benefit of the hindsight we as an audience have, knowing how these events turn out. All of this adds up to a film and a central performance that is remarkably real, it draws you into its story and places you squarely with Churchill, even with some symbolic sections.
I do have a couple of issues with the film. This might be due to the countless recent films about Dunkirk or Churchill himself, but even with Oldman’s performance, the run-down of Churchill’s speeches in the more emotionally charged climaxes felt like a greatest hits collection performed by a terrific cover artist, and speaks to an unwanted laziness in the screenwriting. This is unlike Selma, the 2014 Martin Luther King Jr biopic, which evoked the great man’s speeches and elevated the film above simple repetition. I do not mean to rant about laziness, it is hard to write a screen play and Anthony McCarten, writer of the admittedly weak Theory of Everything, does a fine job. But we have heard those iconic lines over and over, in memorials, in documentaries, TV shows, radio, history classes and now in at least three films I can remember in the last year. They have become less a rallying cry of resistance and more of a beat to hit because we are making a film about Churchill.
The other issue springs out of this as well. Because have seen so many of these films it has become clear about that it is impossible to fit historical events into a three-act structure. It leads to a compression of time and thus a simplification of events and points that would lead to a more cohesive character arch. While I am sure that some of these things happen, one can become aware that events can be spun into something else, emphasising and placing focus on things that detract from or enforce the narrative the film wants to tell. This point has to be made about the fictionalisation of history. Film in itself is a powerful medium, it can twist space and time, we have seen it in the way movies are edited to create or distort a cohesive space out of separate shots. However, it can twist reality into something that looks similar to the world we live in but there is a bias that manifests itself, tainting the enjoyment of the film: there is something that is perceived as propaganda. But that might just be the ramblings of a paranoid film critic.
It may have seemed like I went on a tangent there, but these points are worth making, and it would do us well to keep these in mind when watching other historical fiction films. Now it may have sounded like I dislike Darkest Hour, and that could not be further from the truth. Oldman, and the rest of the cast are wonderful, even if it is dominated by white dudes, and Joe Write lends a level of flair that is sorely lacking in other films of this type. It’s just a shame that the script can’t reach their heights.
You can watch Darkest Hour in cinemas now