Darkest Hour

Review by Trevor Johnston

Directed by

Joe Wright

Starring

Gary Oldman Kristin Scott Thomas Lily James

Anticipation.

The nation’s great leader gets an Oscar-bait biopic.

Enjoyment.

Oldman is sheer joy in a role which transcends an otherwise uneven affair.

In Retrospect.

Anxiety that the film’s historical breast-beating Churchillian spirit will get unjustifiably co-opted by today’s Brexit apologists proves an unwelcome distraction.

Gary Oldman is on career-best form in this standard issue Winston Churchill biopic from director Joe Wright.

If nothing else, this historical drama offers a workable companion piece to Dunkirk, delivering the key political exposition that Christopher Nolan’s relentless pursuit of visceral impact left off-screen. And even though we sorta know who’s going to win, there’s still a certain amount of juice left in this moment-of-decision narrative, as the spring of 1940 sees Parliament swithering over a decision whether to negotiate with Hitler or stand and fight alone. Swither too long, and the Nazis, who already have British forces encircled at Dunkirk, could very well be goose stepping down Whitehall.

Cometh the hour, cometh the awards season performance, as Gary Oldman dons latex and padding, chomps that cigar, and absolutely relishes the Churchillian rhetoric, ably grasping his opportunity to intone some of the most famous speechifying of the 20th century. However much the complexities of sociopolitical flux should teach us not to set too much store by the ‘great man’ theory of history, it’s hard to resist the temptation, especially when Oldman is on form like this.

It’s not too much of a spoiler to hint that the ‘fight them on the beaches’ showstopper will have its time in the spotlight here, as Joe Wright’s camera looks on adoringly. Yet, however much Churchill’s virtuoso command of the language remains thrillingly persuasive, Anthony McKarten’s screenplay also makes an effective point that his serial past calamities made this tyro PM more likely a disaster-in-the-making than a Great Briton to be lionised for decades to come.

As a movie, it’s best when the drama is confined to small rooms, where Oldman’s generosity of presence is allowed to shine and is ably off set by Kristin Scott Thomas’ sinewy-yet-softie spouse, Clemmie. Also there’s the ever-reliable Stephen Dillane as de facto antagonist Halifax, who holds up the pragmatist’s case for sparing us another global conflict and cutting an empire-sharing deal with Germany. As in his 2007 film Atonement, Wright can’t help but over-decorate with self-conscious tracking shots and CGI aerial views, though you can understand his determination to make something which looks more like cinema than Sunday evening TV.

More problematic, though, is something which can’t really be laid at his door, since a drama about a defining moment in British history – where standing alone and embattled proves a vastly superior option to negotiating with those fiendish continentals is inevitably ripe to be unfairly co-opted as ballast for the Brexit cause. Wright himself even pitched up at the press screening to make it clear that he’d started out on the project before the Brexit vote and aimed to craft a purely self-contained historical saga.

The timing of its release makes it unlikely audiences and commentators will all respond in that same hermetic spirit. Such potential distractions aside, it’s fair to report that the movie itself avoids any implications that the national resilience and courage shown in 1940 necessarily also apply in 2018. And Oldman is stonking, however you look at it.

Published 10 Jan 2018

Tags: Gary Oldman Joe Wright

Anticipation.

The nation’s great leader gets an Oscar-bait biopic.

Enjoyment.

Oldman is sheer joy in a role which transcends an otherwise uneven affair.

In Retrospect.

Anxiety that the film’s historical breast-beating Churchillian spirit will get unjustifiably co-opted by today’s Brexit apologists proves an unwelcome distraction.

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