Friday, 19 January 2018

Film Review: Gary Oldman triumphs in Darkest Hour, but the film around him struggles

The third of three films centred around the Dunkirk evacuation to come out over the past year, Darkest Hour is also unfortunately the weakest. While Dunkirk turned its heart stopping adrenaline into an instantly classic feat of filmmaking, and Their Finest finished as one of the warmest and most emotional films of the year, Joe Wright's Darkest Hour instead opts for something more clinical, more watered down. There's no doubting the technical craft on display here, but Wright's film just doesn't leap off the screen.

Which would be fine, if it didn't appear to think that it did. Darkest Hour tackles Operation Dynamo from the British shores, as newfound Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) navigates the tricky political climate to bring home hundreds of thousands of soldiers. There are other smaller subplots running alongside the Dunkirk evacuation, notably one involving King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) and another focused on Churchill's secretary Elizabeth (a delightful Lily James), but Wright wisely doesn't let them overstay their welcome. They serve as short, punchy distractions whenever the film needs to shift itself into something different for a while.

Darkest Hour is gorgeously shot - its camera gliding symmetrically through the House of Commons, its ominously dark red glow during Churchill's first Radio speech - but that's to be expected from a film of this grandeur. It's no Blade Runner 2049, but a cinematography Oscar nod is still likely to come this way. The performances are uniformly great too, even if they're trumped entirely by Oldman's much talked about role here. He plays Churchill with an aggression and an almost hurricane-like force, but he lets the quieter moments count the most. I'd argue the film's two best scenes - Churchill on the phone to Franklin Roosevelt, and an entirely fictionalised sequence of Churchill riding a tube on the London Underground and asking fellow passengers about the war - are both moments that demonstrate Oldman's quiet vulnerability over his brute force. It's a tough role to sell, but he succeeds.

Unfortunately Darkest Hour relies too much on Oldman's performance, and seems to forget to craft its own soul or identity alongside him. There's very little heart or emotion to the film - something Their Finest overflowed with, and something Dunkirk dug up tremendously powerfully in its final moments - and the events we're watching feel almost too stripped bare. Churchill repeatedly hammers in the point about saving lives, but very rarely do we feel as if actual human lives are at stake. There's something frustratingly clinical about Wright's film, a refusal to get into the nitty-gritty of the subject and a reliance on pre-existing speeches to see us through to the film's ending. Darkest Hour climaxes with Churchill's most famous series of words, but despite Oldman giving it all he's got, you probably won't feel much.

I'm not saying we need repeated cutaways to the violence of the Second World War, but Anthony McMarten's script shies too far away from real consequence - it's worryingly easy to forget there's actually a war on. People are talking about it, sure, but their words never hit home. By the time we're watching the film's third or fourth lengthy speech, it's difficult to not feel underwhelmed by how little Darkest Hour has actually accomplished. Its best moments are either merely the work of a great actor utilising a speech written nearly eighty years ago, or purely fictional - two things you don't really want from a film of this kind. Wright can't seem to decide whether he wants to depict a powerful historical moment or take something we know and shine his own light on it, and so his film winds up lost, confused and disappointingly purified.

In A Sentence

Despite effective cinematography and a typically strong performance from Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour's middling script and lack of identity within the genre result in a historical film as simplified as it is frustratingly hollow.

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