Darkest Hour (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
Joe Wright’s biographical drama “The Darkest Hour,” focusing on Winston Churchill’s appointment to become the British Prime Minister as Adolf Hitler takes over Western Europe during World War II, is filled with strong performances, particularly by Gary Oldman as the iconic leader and Kristin Scott Thomas as Churchill’s wife and source of endless support, but the material does not find a way to make the drama as thoroughly engaging as it should be. This is a common problem with many biographical films because we already know what is going to happen. One way to boost intrigue is to provide details not considered to be common knowledge. While I learned a few bits of information, the rest is a waiting game before the famous “Fight on the Beaches” speech.
Gorgeously shot by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, one looks at the images and is immediately convinced at the authenticity of each furniture, clothing, spectacles, extravagant paintings and artifacts because the lighting hits these objects in such a way that they almost glow age. Particularly stunning are two scenes in which Churchill addresses the Parliament, one a failure and the other a rousing success. It is amazing how one room, with the help of Delbonnel’s eye, is able to communicate two different moods. I wondered how it might have been like in the actual room back then and I wished to look closer at the books neatly stacked in the heart of the room where the main source of light is focused.
Oldman is thoroughly convincing as the renowned British leader. Despite the pounds of makeup and fat suit, he is able to communicate the necessary emotions and thought processes that come with being in charge of a nation mired in war. However, I do have to say, even though it happened only occasionally, there are moments when I was taken out of the performance. Take a look at Oldman’s eyes. They do not look like an old person’s; they lack a feeling of weariness and wisdom of someone over eighty. And when you focus on those eyes and then look at the face that houses them, the cosmetics become apparent, distracting. I wish the filmmakers had found a way to make the eyes look more aged, perhaps with the use of CGI, because the performance itself is wonderful.
There is one questionable character and casting choice. Lily James plays Elizabeth Layton, Churchill’s new secretary. As the picture goes on, one cannot help but wonder what purpose this character serves other than the obvious that is her occupation since she neither does nor says anything particularly interesting. It is possible that Layton is supposed to be our conduit to the story, but a conduit must function as more than a mousy observer. James’ one expression drags down an otherwise strong collective.
“Darkest Hour,” written by Anthony McCarten, is at its best when Churchill is with his war cabinet. Disagreements abound when it comes to the subject of Britain’s survival. The irony is that the cabinet members are almost at war with one another. Even more ironic is the fact that Churchill filled his team with political rivals. There are threats of shame, taking the wrong side in history, resignation. Stephen Dillane is great as Viscount Halifax, convinced that peace negotiations with Hitler is the better choice than fighting the Nazi scourge.