“He stands for one thing and one thing only: himself”
Do you want a film about World War II where at least three of the main characters are rich, white, old and have a speech impediment? Do you also want a film that completely shifts its tone in the third act, upending everything that’s been built up in the previous two acts? Then Darkest Hour may be the film for you! Can Churchill’s manner of speaking be classed as a speech impediment? Well, it impeded my hearing of the dialogue. Does that count? Darkest Hour is a good, even very good film the first two acts. However, a pivotal scene in the third act comes across as crass and ridiculous. For me, at least, it ruined the entire film.
Think of Darkest Hour as a prequel of sorts to Dunkirk (or, maybe, to director Joe Wright’s own film, Atonement? That had a cracking five minute Dunkirk scene). It tells the story of World War II from Chamberlain’s resignation to Churchill’s “we shall fight on the beaches” speech, mostly from Churchill’s perspective. We do see things from the POV of Chamberlain, Lord Halifax and King George VI (yes, the one Colin Firth played in The King’s Speech. They missed a trick not having him play the King in this film!). There’s political in-fighting, a new female secretary who acts as the conduit for the audience, and a lot of old white men. Churchill’s wife is on the screen, but in a background role that adds little to the story.
“Will you stop interrupting me while I am interrupting you!”
Darkest Hour has Oscar bait written all over it. A portrayal of a great historical figure by a great actor? Check! World War II? Check! Defying odds in the face of great adversity? Check! For me, the biggest attraction of this film was to see Gary Oldman in action as Churchill. He’s almost unrecognisable, layered in prosthetics, but you can still see the Oldman eyes! And yes, his performance is most impressive. He just doesn’t mimic Churchill, but becomes Churchill. Even through the low points of this film, his performance shines. Yes, it’s an Oscar bait performance, but what’s wrong with that? Oldman deserves some Oscar recognition! It is a performance for the ages.
(But isn’t it more impressive to create a wholly new character and become that character? Historical characters are prime Oscar bait, but why? This is something for a different blog, however!).
Of course, the film has to be more than Churchill’s performance. For the first two acts of the film, history and politics are simplified for a modern audience to understand the state of British government at the start of World War II. It’s intriguing and gripping in equal measures. Yes, it may be white men with speech impediments talking in rooms, but to see politics working and clashing on the big screen in an accessible way is always entertaining (to me!). Especially when you have Joe Wright framing events, often boxing Churchill in as a metaphor for his loneliness and struggle. Also, it’s a lot funnier than I anticipated (even extracting some hearty laughs from me!).
“He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle”
I was fully invested in this film…until the beginning of the third act. Yes, it had been telegraphed earlier on in the film. Yes, it may have happened in real life. But since when do historical films have anything to do with history? I’m not bothered if a film is historically inaccurate. If I wanted historical accuracy, I’d read a book! However, Churchill’s excursion on the Underground and subsequent chats with the public were at odds with the rest of the film. I felt like the scene had been lifted from a different film and plonked into Darkest Hour. Yes, I understand why it’s there. Churchill is struggling with a dilemma: investigate peace with Germany, or keep buggering on. But the man we’ve known for most of the film is a stubborn, opinionated man who knew his own mind. Why would he need the opinion of Londoners to aid his dilemma? Not only that, but his excursion on the Tube made him late for an important War Cabinet meeting! From that point on, I couldn’t take the film seriously. That unfortunately impacted on the final, emotional recreation of Churchill’s “we shall fight them on the beaches” speech. I usually tear up whenever I hear that powerful speech. And Oldman nailed the delivery. But I couldn’t get that stupid Tube scene out of my head!
Darkest Hour is typical Oscar bait done rather well. Gary Oldman’s performance is awesome, worthy of the admission alone. And, for the first two acts, the film sets out a gripping narrative. Who knew political in-fighting could be so enthralling?!?! However, a ridiculous scene in the third act derails the entire film. Churchill meets commoners on the Underground in an unusually long Tube journey (it’s one stop! It shouldn’t last that long!). Whether or not it could have happened is an unnecessary question. It’s just incredibly jarring and derails the momentum just at the moment we should be preparing for Churchill’s greatest (?) speech. What a shame.
VERDICT: 6/10. Darkest Hour is anchored by a powerhouse performance by Gary Oldman as Churchill. However, it’s deflated by an ill-advised Tube excursion in the third act that makes a mockery of what came before.
What did you think of Darkest Hour (2017)? Leave your thoughts/comments below!
Click here for my review of Dunkirk (2017)