The long-awaited prequel to Dunkirk
The awards season keeps cranking out Oscar contenders, and I keep the reviews up. Today’s entry is one of those “Actor’s Movie.” You know the one, the type of film where everything was clearly set up to be a showcase for a single thespian’s talents, while the supporting cast are basically mannequins for the lead to act opposite of. Think The Wrestler, Man on the Moon, The Machinist, The Revenant or basically any movie where Daniel Day-Lewis is the lead (looking at you, Phantom Thread). And hey, Gary Oldman hasn’t had one of these kinds films in a while. Which is surprising given how much he transforms himself from role to role, so playing one of Britain’s heroes is long overdue (for Oldman, Churchill has been portrayed by dozens of actors).
Set in May 1940, right after Nazi Germany had invaded France, the House of Parliament in the United Kingdom are pissed at Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) finding that he was unfit to contain the Axis menace. Upon his resignation as Prime Minister, King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) was then tasked with asking Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) to lead the British Empire instead. Churchill immediately sets up a war cabinet, but many of them, particular Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), pressure the new Prime Minister to enter negotiation talks with Italy in order to save the United Kingdom’s entire army now cornered in Dunkirk. While desperate for help, Churchill still has the support of his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) and his secretary (Lily James), and begins formulating a last-ditch plan to rescue the troops and maintain his position as Prime Minister in Britain’s darkest hour…oh I get it now.
Like I said, the reason to watch this movie and the only reason alone is to watch Gary Oldman perform. Even the marketing behind the film knows that he’s the main selling point. And to give credit where credit is due, this really is a damn fine performance and easily one of Goldman’s most memorable displays since his batshit roles in Dracula and Leon the Professional in the 1990s. What makes him work is a combination of a stellar makeup job and Oldman’s own personal inflections in order to embody Winston Churchill. And that means copying everything on down to how Churchill moved around to how he smoked cigars and to how he even smirked. The devil is in the details, and Oldman makes sure that every bit of Churchill’s stirring speeches as well as private moments feel genuine and believable.
Wish I could say the same of the rest of cast, who all just seem happy to be acting in front of Gary Oldman. Now I’ve seen many of these thespians work wonders before, hell both Ben Mendelsohn and Lily James have shined in very bit roles; but the script barely gives them anything to work with in Darkest Hour. They mostly serve as character archetypes and never rise above that. Stephen Dillane as Lord Halifax is the only one of the supporting cast who gets to do anything special, by being the embodiment of opposition to Churchill’s “never surrender” attitude. When the film features both Oldman and Dillane on screen, there’s definitely major fireworks going on as they grapple with each other on the fate of their island and the fate of Europe itself…but these scenes are also sparse as well.
Instead, you mostly follow the very brief window of time between when Churchill first took power as Prime Minister and when he was able to rally the rest of Parliament behind his “fight them on the beaches” tenacity. The film pays only lip service to the dire situation that was the Dunkirk Evacuation, but it’s merely used as a relatively minor plot detail compared to the weight that should have been afforded to it. Now I know Christopher Nolan basically already gave us everything we could have ever asked for in terms of seeing the escape from Dunkirk, but it does feel weird that such a significant moment in history was essentially glossed over by this movie and finds its resolution in an end title card bizarrely enough. That’d be like making a two hour movie about JFK’s first year as President and dedicate only 5 minutes to the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s a weird misplace of focus is my point.
At the same time, Darkest Hour is really supposed to double as both a biopic and a political thriller as you see statesmen vigorously debate with each other on what’s the best course of action. However, I’m reminded of how just damn great Spielberg’s Lincoln was (one of those Day-Lewis joints I was referring to earlier), which similarly dealt with politicians having yelling matches against one another about a major stance for a country to take; but that film also benefited from a heavyweight ensemble cast all giving impassioned performances and a script that didn’t give Lincoln all the best lines in the picture as well as one of our greatest living directors taking care with sweeping cinematography and an impassioned score. Darkest Hour merely has one above average performance and…that’s about it really.
The director, Joe Wright, has frustrated me over the years as being a severely uneven director. He debuted on the scene with his Pride & Prejudice adaptation (no not the zombie one) and Atonement, making sure he knew how to deliver on the concept of epic film making. The last time he impressed me personally was with a very stylish thriller called Hanna; but in the six years since that, he made the really unfocused Anna Karenina and the abysmally bad Pan. While Wright knows how to work with actors and shoot high concept scripts, he struggles with adding anything visually interesting or ensuring his supporting cast all have an opportunity to give a solid performance. That’s no exception with Darkest Hour, but he really does need to learn when to trim fat from a script and know where the heart of his film lies.
It’s with Oldman’s sterling performance and his character’s struggle against his own teammates in trying to save the United Kingdom from the Nazi armies banging down their doors. THAT is what the film should have been focused on as well as his relationship with the regular citizens of his country. Because when the movie gives you these scenes, it comes alive and helps you understand precisely where Churchill was coming from. But the film was also too fixated on cramming in every historical detail imaginable and it didn’t know how to make the support of Parliament the focus of the film the way Lincoln knew how to make the passage of the 13th Amendment the centerpiece of that production.
Watching Oldman act is still too good for this film to be ignored in any case, but given my reservations with the film itself, I’ll give this a low…