Darkest Hour is a film of showcases, acting, production design, and of course, Gary Oldman. Darkest Hour seems to be a movie tailored to my liking: a historical WWII themed film. But, even as someone who loves history, Darkest Hour falls shorts of its potential. By no means bad, nor even sub-par, Darkest Hour is a good historical film that sometimes struggles to engage its story at the same level that the actors are operating at.
Darkest Hour is about Winston Churchill’s rise to power as a prime minister in the early days of World War II. Wisely, Darkest Hour does not attempt to be an overview of his entire time in office during the war. Instead, this focuses on his initial time in office, how he got there, how he was viewed, and how he chose to deal with the looming Nazi threat. This movie roughly only takes place over the course of a month and deals heavily with the topic of Dunkirk. In some ways, this makes Darkest Hour a perfect companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and director Joe Wright’s previous film Atonement (which also deals with the Dunkirk). With historical films, it is easy to get caught up in the many details and historical “manusha” that the movie can get bogged down and lose sight of the narrative. This makes it a smart move to focus so closely on a small of a time frame.
Despite this, Darkest Hour struggles in telling its story in an interesting way. The first half of the movie is surprisingly dull and lacking in emotional investment. There are many interesting historical plot details that are well woven into the screenplay, but this first half forgets to do one very important thing, which is to build characters. Throughout the first half of the movie, I found myself feeling like a distant viewer. I felt like I was watching the story from overhead instead of being next to Churchill in his political battles. This made the first half of the movie very impersonal.
That is until the second half of the movie comes along and picks Darkest Hour up in major ways. Director Joe Wright finally begins to pull out the character of Churchill, which had been non-existent through the beginning of the story. Relationships begin to develop with Churchill’s peers, and by the time we have reached the end of the story (and Churchill delivers his most famous speech, “We Will Fight On The Beaches”), the emotional resonance is palpable and will make you want to get up and cheer along with it. The issues that plague the movie in the opening salvos do not seem like Joe Wright is intentionally holding back for this type of monumental payoff. Thankfully, once we get to the meat of the story, this does become the great movie it should have been from the beginning.
At the heart of this movie is Gary Oldman. Oldman has already had many career-defining and forever memorable performances. But here might be his greatest performance still. Arguably the greatest portrayal of a historical leader since Daniel Day-Lewis’s turn as Abraham Lincoln, Gary Oldman is phenomenal in this movie. Watching this movie, I never saw Oldman, I saw Churchill come back to life. As the movie delves into more dramatic beats, Oldman hits every mark he needs to make.
Around him is a talented cast full of acting veterans that bring their A-game: Ben Mendelsohn, Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Stephen Dillane. These performances are not to be overlooked, but Oldman will no doubt tower over the discussion of this film.
When it is all said and done, Darkest Hour is a good film. Once we get to the heart of the story, Darkest Hour shines and makes sitting through the early struggles well worth the endeavor. This isn’t as good as other recent WWII themed films like The Imitation Game, but this is well worth a watch especially for Gary Oldman’s turn as Winston Churchill and the rest of the fine performances of the cast.