The critical world has been abuzz over Gary Oldman’s Oscar-worthy performance in Darkest Hour. Sporting a physique more, dare I say, jowel-y, Oldman plays British Prime Minister Winston Churchill from his selection to his rallying of Parliament to support war efforts against Germany.
Clearly, Oldman is at center stage in Darkest Hour. His performance is certainly transfixing; he embodies Churchill with a mix of grumbling brutish, beady-eyed fury, and unexpected compassion. He could win an Oscar for his role, and it would not be undeserved. But Oldman is but one facet of this film’s construction.
Director Joe Wright makes great use of the material at hand from a visionary standpoint. Certain scenes are shot with an almost rhythmic elegance. These include both scenes of reserved spectacle and scenes of mere conversation. A scene that could have been composed of shot-reverse shot, as in the first meeting between Churchill and King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), is dynamic and interesting.
This scene, in particular, is staged like a conversational dance, with both characters beginning beyond arm’s length, light from the window streaming on their faces and casting long shadows. Then, Churchill steps up to the King to kiss his hand. They speak tensely about their at-odds political opinions, then Churchill steps backwards into his original position. It is a rather glorious set of shots.
The few scenes of war are also depicted in this elegant manner. An overhead pan across bombs dropping onto a city blend into the next shot, the pan continuing until we as an audience realize we are no longer looking at scorched earth but, instead, the dead face of a man. It is extreme long shot to extreme close-up in one seamlessly invisible edit, and it is arguably the best pair of shots in the film.
Beyond the—I will say it once more, and only once more—elegance of the direction at work here, Darkest Hour finds itself lacking in key areas.
Primarily, the film begins to unravel rapidly during the final 20 minutes, beginning with a scene on an underground transit train. The reality of the biographical film world starts to break down here, and it will continue to do so as characters turn favor far too fast. The film’s dramatic crux is Churchill’s inability to gain respect in Parliament, and because of this rapid final act the end result is not earned.
The supporting acting performances in the film are strong. Kristen Scott Thomas, Lily James, Mendelsohn: they all do great work. However, especially considering James and Thomas are on the poster for the film, their characters are woefully bland. They are merely written around Churchill’s character in order to give Oldman his career-defining performance.
With this poor final act, pacing grinds to a halt. For a film that already moves at a slower pace, this ending leaves you walking out feeling as if Darkest Hour could carry more gravitas than it does. The movie certainly struts along the screen as if it has this gravitas. It just isn’t there—like an entertainer intently selling the lip sync even though the song never comes on.
Darkest Hour is a film seemingly constructed around Gary Oldman. He is the best Churchill the casting director could have asked for, but he alone isn’t going to make the film a masterpiece.
Darkest Hour: B-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)