The obsession with Winston Churchill on screen continues into this year with Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour. This time, the film is Oscar nominated, with Gary Oldman’s performance as the wartime prime minister singled out as the one to take Best Actor. Despite all these plaudits, the film feels unnecessary – a ponderous exercise and a caricature of a man whose portrayals peaked with John Lithgow in The Crown.
Directed by Joe Wright, this film should be a period drama staple. After all, Wright is the man behind some of the biggest period films in the 21st century, including 2005’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and Atonement. Darkest Hour is set in May 1940, when Churchill was newly appointed to his role, dealing with mutiny within the ranks and stranded soldiers over in Dunkirk.
As the centre of the film, this portrayal of Churchill doesn’t shy from his difficult personality but it does present them as necessary foibles. Scenes where he yells at his secretary from the bath and walks around barely dressed may have been factually accurate but they’ve uncomfortable to view in this day and age, and not something to present as an endearing eccentricity. Throughout, Oldman shouts and screams endlessly under ten layers of prosthetic makeup. His transformation is a impressive feat of technical work, that appears to have blinded many people to the fact that the performance behind it lacks any nuance. Credit to the make up artist, but Oldman doesn’t bring any matching level of detail.
Interspersed with all this shouting is odd CGI moments, where we see the battle overseas from a bird’s eye view. Otherwise, we’re placed in parliament, distanced from the real human conflict. The last scene where Winston Churchill addresses the nation in parliament is undoubtedly taking on an important moment but at the same time, the privileged men in power who cheer him on don’t interest me. I care about how it affected the people sitting at home, waiting for their sons and brothers to come back.
It’s funny because Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk got a lot of criticism this year for not having a clear kind of hero to follow but Darkest Hour is far more criminal in its use of detachment. A poorly though-out subway scene is the film’s attempt at bringing the scale of the war home, but it falls flat. Instead we’re stuck with the bickering of wealthy men in suits. I’m reminded of Atonement’s agonising and breathtaking scene at Dunkirk and wonder when Joe Wright forgot to include real emotional resonance.
Wright has done exceptional work in bringing to life beautiful works of fiction, and particularly in giving us nuanced female characters. Perhaps when it comes to dealing with history, his approach doesn’t work as it should. Hampered, instead of bolstered, by an overindulgent performance by Oldman, Darkest Hour feels like an empty shell of a film. You can stick in scenes to patch up narrative deficiencies or apply prosthetics to replicate faces but in the end, the beating heart of this historical drama is missing. I hope Wright starts to rediscover exactly what it was that made his films so affecting in the first place.