So you know all the stuff that was going on offscreen during Dunkirk? That’s centerstage in Darkest Hour, a historical drama that observes British higher-ups during a decisive moment in 1940. Most especially, it focuses on Winston Churchill, who had been Prime Minister less than a month when the evacuation of Dunkirk was executed. But that unlikely event—300,000 trapped British troops ferried across the English Channel from France—is merely one piece of Darkest Hour.
Others include the background plotting to undercut Churchill, the great man’s own uncertainty about whether to wage war or make peace with Hitler, and the campaign to win Gary Oldman an Oscar. If that last one sounds jarring, it’s nevertheless part of the experience of watching this film. It had better be, because aside from Oldman’s frisky pleasure in hamming it up, Darkest Hour collapses in a great pile of hogwash. This movie is so crammed with cornball theatrics and easy conclusions that it works against its own remarkable true story.
Oldman is decorated in jowly prosthetics, which do not impede him from chewing a cigar through most of the picture. It’s a shame he’ll probably win an Oscar for this, given his superior work for the last 30 years in movies as different as Sid & Nancy and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Amid all the bluster, Stephen Dillane and Ronald Pickup do nice work as Lord Halifax and Neville Chamberlain, and best of all is Ben Mendelsohn, who carries himself with imperial weariness and dignity as King George VI (that’s the royal embodied by Colin Firth in The King’s Speech, the film this one is most trying to emulate). Obligatory stabs at portraying Churchill’s home life are a thankless task for Kristen Scott Thomas, as Churchill’s wife—a task not helped by her apparently wearing Oldman’s wig from Dracula.
Director Joe Wright (Atonement) keeps choosing fancy camera angles and jazzy lighting, as though worried about making a talky show exciting. This gives Darkest Hour the quality of a TV commercial for the indomitable British spirit. Especially embarrassing is Churchill’s first ride on the London subway, where he speaks with a diverse group of regular folks about the British willingness to stay calm and carry on. You can guess how that scene goes. You can probably write it.
I’m not being sarcastic when I say that Churchill’s magnificent “We shall fight on the beaches” speech was given a more stirring delivery by the regular soldier who reads it aloud from a newspaper in Dunkirk than in Oldman’s thunderous turn here. That late scene in Dunkirk was effective partly because it was unexpected. There are no such surprises in Darkest Hour, least of all its timing as late-December Oscar bait. Opens Fri., Dec. 22 at Seattle 10, Meridian, Thornton Place, Alderwood, Lincoln Square; rated PG-13