“The film […] roughs itself up at the edges, as if running it across the finish line should be a dare.”
by Ken Bakely
The first act of Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour resembles a nearly manic, whooshing farce. When Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) starts her new job as Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman)’s private secretary, on the same day the latter is named Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, the camera lingers on her as she walks into his home. It holds the reveal, and then smashes to Churchill – Oldman buried under makeup and a fat suit – in his bathrobe, munching on his breakfast, ready to introduce himself as a caustic personality. The film moves on from there, specializing in “impossible” horizontal pans through walls and across floors, CGI shots that look like something out of a wartime Google Earth, and eccentric staging of characters poking in and out of separate doors, opening and closing them simultaneously. It may be Wright’s trademark, but it’s a misplaced introduction, with implied reaction to levity which is hardly present, an awkward mix of historical drama with a hyperactive camera.
Yet there comes a point when the script’s focus rests upon its iconic protagonist. The movie snaps into its next, and best, phase – a pensive, piercing political thriller, recreating the hectic first weeks of Churchill’s premiership. It’s May 1940, and as the Nazis storm into Western Europe, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) has left 10 Downing Street. The Conservatives reluctantly select Churchill as his successor, with the isolationist faction of the party hoping for a slipup which will force his resignation. Darkest Hour treats this struggle – a man dealing with crisis abroad while attempting to hold the confidence of his own colleagues – with a straight-edged elegance. Crisply edited, closely framed, and scored with a present-tense fervor, the film’s mood professes imminent threat with clockwork precision.
And that’s not even mentioning Oldman. As Churchill, his rotund physique fills the screen. His voice, a breathtaking recreation of the British statesman’s tight-chinned yet unshakable verbalizing, cuts through cross-talk like a knife and elevates prepared addresses to spine-chilling levels. Every exchange is vital. This is acting as occupying as transforming, beyond the prosthetic work which creates the artificial resemblance. Darkest Hour is at its best during its middle crush of conversations, arguments, and constitutions. Wright, and screenwriter Anthony McCarten, allow the content’s natural interest to build through everything from the blazing tempers in the war room, to the softer interactions between individuals. Of course, the acting moves it into a core asset, but the dialogue is electric on its own, vibrant as though it were spoken on a stage right before us.
That’s what makes the abstract messiness of the first half-hour such a disappointment. And for different reasons, it’s what causes problems in the film’s final stretch. With the buildup to the grand finale (the iconic “We shall fight on the beaches” address) in view, Darkest Hour devolves from sturdy drama to languid setpieces. We watch as characters wade through impromptu speeches, or Churchill is refreshed by the resolve found when speaking with commuters during a spontaneous trip on the Underground. Sharp, uncluttered motions get replaced by thick, heavy flourishes. It’s a third transition for the film, and one which seems unmapped at best, and disingenuous at worst. Wright’s distraction at this stage is all the more disappointing, because we’ve seen how great the movie can be when he steps back and allows his excellent cast to do their thing.
Some believe that first impressions are everything. Others will tell you that final words have the final say. In either case, Darkest Hour disappoints. Its core – both in the dramatic and structural sense – is thorough and exemplary, and showcases examples of truly fine acting. But the taste feels soured by the muddling on either side, akin to an excellent cut of meat served between slices of stale bread. With a shifting tone, we can’t appreciate the complexities that could have come from a consistently told story. Oldman endures it all, and his work is excellent throughout. But who didn’t think that would be so? The film takes for granted the professionalism in its execution, and roughs itself up at the edges, as if running it across the finish line should be a dare.