Familiar British period drama director Joe Wright steps away from his usual romance genre for this biopic/war film, and it turns out alright– until the plot turns painfully contrived and, frankly, baffling by the end. Gary Oldman is the only truly laudable part of this film, which drags on for far too long otherwise.
It seems that each year can only produce one good World War II movie. Known for romance movies such as Pride & Prejudice (2005), Atonement (2007), and Anna Karenina (2012), Joe Wright tackled another part of WWII that Dunkirk did not cover: the appointment of Winston Churchill as Prime Minister and his victory in that position. It is debatable if Dunkirk and Darkest Hour are equally praiseworthy, however.
Watch the trailer here. I’m sorry to report that the actual full-length film is not as exciting.
The movie begins on May 9, 1940 when “Hitler has invaded Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark and Norway.” After showing the resignation of the incompetent yet somewhat liked Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, Churchill (played by an unrecognizable Oldman) steps into the post.
Joe Wright did the best he could within his limits. Some shots were striking, like the exploding lights in Churchill’s first nationwide broadcast (still shown below). When Churchill was under particularly extreme amounts of pressure, Wright severely constricted the frames to show the claustrophobic effect of these demands on him.
The changes between scenes were a bit abrupt. The music on the soundtrack was more on the beautiful side, but I wanted some tension.
An hour into the movie, the story was really starting to drag. It couldn’t hold my attention with the same tricks anymore. In general, it is difficult to make a compelling “process” movie, but it has been done in recent years– think Spotlight (2015), Zero Dark Thirty (2012), and probably more I’m forgetting.
Gary Oldman was the only element that truly saved this film. Oldman has been near and dear to my heart for the Harry Potter series, and watching him undergo a complete transformation and winning the Best Actor Oscar he thoroughly deserves was nothing short of extraordinary. Check out this video from WIRED featuring accent coach Eric Singer commenting on various actors’ accuracy with accents. Their various videos with Singer are pretty famous around YouTube by now. Even from the knowledge gained from these videos, it was evident that Oldman had mastered the art of reenacting Churchill. His constricted jaw and even the “old man” laughter were completely integrated within him.
But Oldman couldn’t save the painful exaggerations in the plot. Toward the end of the movie, Churchill has lost faith in Britain’s ability to win the war, but everyone in the train he’s riding cheers him on. This scene was too contrived. How can everyone say the same thing? There wasn’t even a single person who was afraid or expressed doubt about the safety of the nation? The script even included lines like “We will even take up a broomstick and fight!” …Really? All of them were that patriotic? I’m not sure if that’s how real life works. Also, Churchill assumed that they represented the entire British population, but 15 people cannot stand for the morale or lack thereof of the entire population… The entire setup was too artificial.
Also: the final speech in the film (that earned him a standing ovation and loud cheers from both parties in Parliament) was actually given in real life after the successful Dunkirk evacuation, not before. When I found out, I thought, Of course. There’s no way people would have had such a explosive and positive reaction for little reason and an even slimmer chance that Churchill would have been so confident without even having rescued the men yet. That would just be foolish.
Darkest Hour somehow tried to usher the audience into thinking that words can make tangible change in war. Sure, maybe it can raise morale. But what enabled the miraculous Dunkirk evacuation? Luck. It was luck. Not words. The movie did convey adequately the opinions of the opposition (Halifax, Chamberlain) and Churchill’s self-doubt, but then it abruptly jumped to this hopeful campaign of fighting no matter what the cost and everyone supporting him. It just didn’t make sense. The ending was just a hodgepodge and a weak argument that pure courage somehow just won the war. The film failed to convince me.
The film was alright until the halfway mark, and then it seemed to drag on except for the somewhat encouraging final scene with Churchill’s fiery speech– but let’s not forget that the whole “ordinary citizens’ undying morale” was completely contrived and that the speech was not even historically accurate.
I will give the film a 74/100.
RogerEbert.com gave the highest score– 4/4– not sure why. Oldman isn’t the entire film.
Rotten Tomatoes gives a more realistic 85% (at the time of this post’s publication)