Gary Oldman is known as the “Chamaleon” for shape-shifting into his different characters; to give an example he can play bad-ass sexy wizard Sirius Black in Harry Potter, or he can play an equally convincing wimped and unsecure Commissioner Gordon in The Dark Knight. The British actor has now been cast as Winston Churchill in the new biopic Darkest Hour, and he once again earns the right to his Hollywood nickname changing his appearance and voice completely.
Darkest Hour is a brief recounting of the first few months of Churchill’s reign as prime minister. For those unfamiliar with history, Churchill was more or less shoved into 10 Downing Street as prime minister when things in mainland Europe were looking dire and the Nazis were nearly at Britain’s doorstep. The film goes about the office life of Churchill, and his specific relationships with his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), and his new typist Elizabeth (Lily James).
The film mostly wants to stay close to Churchill and make it more of an office drama than a war film. But perhaps the film oversteps in its shadowing of such an iconic historical figure. Unlike in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, Darkest Hour has barely any political drama. The possible tension in the office and bunker setting is dissipated by an incredibly bogged down and slow pace. The screenplay plays more like a timeline and retelling of scenes of Churchill trying to write his speeches, than getting into his actual decision-making and political genius. In fact, by the end of the film, the character is exactly the same as in the beginning, in both our eyes and the script’s. What’s the point of watching events unfold, if they’re going to have no effect on Churchill’s character in the two-hour-plus runtime? Moving away from the missed opportunity of prying into Churchill’s head, the other characters onscreen (with an exception of George VI who is fabulously played by Mendelsohn) are simply anecdotal. But what’s most frustrating of this last observation is that the actresses Lily James and Kristin Scott Thomas were so eager to explore their characters that it feels like a suppression rather than vagueness by screenwriter Anthony McCarten.
As for the acting, we all know Oldman can be incredibly versatile, but a great actor will always need guidance from a director, and Joe Wright in this film was too timid with his hand, having Oldman overact, and losing sight of supporting roles that could have been juiced out. That’s not to blame Wright too much, Churchill is an incredibly complex character to put to the screen, and another film this year, aptly titled Churchill has also been a critical disaster, with its inability to bring a soul to the name and person. But nevertheless, there were certain tropes that Wright fell into, like swelling up the music constantly so that in the end you couldn’t distinguish quiet moments from epic ones, or in the overuse of quirky cinematography, which entertains at first, but ends up distracting and consuming your time and patience,
In the end, Darkest Hour is an informative piece for those who have been completely blind to Britain’s actions early in WWII. But one thing that is clearly witnessed after this film is that the legendary story of Winston Churchill demands a legendary director and screenwriter to tell it.