“Darkest Hour” is a desperate, phony, gaudy historical drama, and with it, director Joe Wright has gone from a talent to watch to one that should be avoided. It’s a shame too. I liked his first film, an umpteenth version of “Pride and Prejudice” that overcame the odds and justified its existence. That movie showed an equal measure of exuberance and restraint. But with each successive film that restraint has eroded more and more, culminating with this exercise in excess.
The movie recounts the first month after Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) ascends to the role of Britain’s Prime Minister. With Nazi Germany conquering most of Western Europe, it’s now knocking on Great Britain’s door, leaving Churchill in a tough spot. Should he capitulate in the name of peace to a dictatorial regime? Or send England into a war it increasingly looks like it could lose?
Almost every scene, every moment is punctuated by some overly dramatic camera move, visual trick, or fancy edit. It just never stops. The movie constantly calls attention to itself, constantly shows off. After a short while, it’s just exhausting and one-note. Churchill gives his first radio address as prime minister and a little red “on-air” bulb lights up. Here that little bulb floods the whole room, bathing everything in an eerie glow that highlights…I don’t know what. I’m suspecting Wright just thought it looked dramatic.
Later, at the tail end of a failed front in Chalais, the camera tracks a British commander down a long hallway as he reads a dire message: England is abandoning them. As he reaches the end of the tunnel, his gaze turns skyward, looking up through a bombed hole. The camera zooms heavenward with his gaze, up and up, transforming into a bird’s eye view of the commander’s position. Bombers fly into the shot, and then: smash-cut to an extreme close-up on Lily James’ watery eyes, back in England looking at the map of the troop’s position. Her eyes close, a tear runs down her cheek. We then smash cut back to Chalais as it erupts in fiery explosions. It’s all just too much. Trying way too hard without getting the results it’s so desperately going for. The very definition of pretentious.
Look, I like stylish movies. I can’t deny that. But style has to be executed with good taste, with reason. Otherwise, it’s just throwing a bunch of splashy stuff at the screen and seeing what sticks. And that’s what Joe Wright does here.
And yes, admittedly, some of that splashy stuff does stick. A few times his roaming camera is put to good use, as when we’re introduced to the expansive underground lair that houses the war cabinet. The camera floats through the elaborate set as it’s shown to Elizabeth, Lily James’ character, (who’s wasted in a smallish role as Churchill’s new secretary and audience surrogate) who’s being walked through on her first day. It’s a nice way of getting our bearings and a grasp of the geography.
And there’s a clever moment as the camera floats and pans from one member of parliament to another, each having his own conversation about Churchill’s flaws as a leader and a human being while walking through different areas of Westminster Abbey, with one conversation picking up where the other left off. The movie often borders on becoming a hagiography, but this scene eases that a little bit (though of course, Churchill is allowed to successfully rebut most of these accusations later on, but I digress…), and the way that it’s shot is both dynamic and pushes the information in a clever and efficient manner.
At one point in this scene, one of the parliamentary members mentions that Churchill has 100 ideas a day, but only 4 of them are any good. The same can be said of Wright. Like Churchill, he has a 100 ideas, all of which he throws into the movie, but only a few of them are worth it.
And then there’s Gary Oldman. As I’m writing this, his win for the Best Actor Oscar is not even 24 hours old. Look, the man deserves an Oscar, there’s no question about that, but not for this performance. It’s too hammy, all wild gesticulations and affectations. To be fair, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a restrained take on Churchill by any actor who has tried; I’m not sure it’s even possible. With his corpulence and marble mouth, the real Churchill cuts a cartoonish figure. But that’s the thing, an actor who could pull that off? Somebody who could play that role without hamming it up? That somebody would be worthy of the Oscar. But Oldman is just overacting here, ohing and ahing as he affects a fat limp, while still moving far too sprightly for a man of his wide stature. And when he starts yelling, it’s supposed to be dramatic, chill-inducing even, but it’s just absurd, the pained screech of a madman.
The makeup he endured to appear like Churchill is pretty impressive, at least for a little while. At first, you’re like, “That’s Gary Oldman?!” But then, despite all of that latex stretched over his frame, you clearly see Oldman in there. He never loses himself in the character. You see his eyes, you hear his voice and it’s clearly him, just under a ton of makeup. And that makeup, as the film wears on, reveals its flaws also. It’s too waxy, too stiff.
“Darkest Hour” is so obsessed with style that, misguided as it may be, it almost has to be seen to be believed. I want to call the movie a mess. It’s not. Wright knew exactly what he was doing, he just didn’t have the common sense, or the good taste not to do it. It acts like an Oscar film and moves like an Oscar film, but like the thousand pounds of make-up encasing Gary Oldman, it may look convincing at a glance, but it’s completely phony.