Gary Oldman wants an Oscar and that’s the only reason to watch this film.
Recalling Winston Churchill’s ascendance as Prime Minister and the tense days immediately preceding Operation Dynamo and events better realised in the likes of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, Oldman’s performance, not so much a centrepiece of Darkest Hour as it is the laurel rested upon the entirety of the film’s promise, is redoubtable.
Consummately adorned to evince the bellicose and not uncontentious figure, save his eyes, nose and mouth, few among the arresting attributes adeptly deployed to bring Churchill to life, the veteran is unquestionably a better evocation of the wartime leader than the A-listers who even as of recent have tried and failed to measure up to anything akin to Oldman’s visage. Reportedly conducting copious research on the character over months, within thirty minutes Oldman evokes a stirring likeness that puts to passing thought that this is anything but a most practised of recreations and too a definitive, all-engrossing turn where you can all but forget you are watching a thespian at work.
Long deserving of the Academy’s graces, Oldman could just scrape gold this time around. Unfortunately, this is where Darkest Hour’s plaudits start and stop.
The only segments of the screenplay worth the price of admission are those actually uttered by the man himself, or that which is otherwise wholly lifted, as heavily implied, from Cabinet documents and the Parliamentary record. The artful re-enactments of key moments of Churchill’s history, the title itself taken from one of the Prime Minister’s most famous speeches, here painstakingly recreated, far exceed the characterisations of any other figure, and notable lack thereof. The likes of Kristin Scott Thomas (Clementine Churchill), Ronald Pickup (Neville Chamberlain), Games of Thrones’ Stephen Dillane (Viscount Halifax) and even a stand-out Ben Mendelsohn as a dogged King George VI are proffered little dialogue beyond their musings of or reactions to dear Winston.
Lily James, the only performer to rise far beyond an extended cameo, is permitted a fairly one-dimensional character whose emotional resonance, central to the style of wartime epic so wanting to exceed the biopic’s bounds, is unfortunately hampered by the minimal focus on anyone but Oldman.
As if to underline the screenplay’s problems, a central character of historical notoriety second only to Churchill at one point exclaims that he has cancer, only for this moribund declaration to be later referred to by an oblique visual alone, until the closing credits when a title card briefly informs us that he later died, from cancer. Such a narrative choice worked infamous wonders for The Room; the addition here, while not as blatant, is still woefully negligible.
More disappointing still, Darkest Hour is only the latest in a long line of period dramas to lionize and ultimately portray the icon in a hitherto familiar, roundly sympathetic light. Nevertheless addressing some controversial aspects of the man’s legacy, most notably a recurring if regrettably brief focus on Churchill’s role in the Gallipoli campaign, his part in what is referred to here as the ‘India policy’ is relegated to one line alone. If this treatment of Churchill is distinguished by it’s star, it is in no way distinguished by what could easily have been a more considered, multifaceted approach to its subject that instead treads familiar ground and plays it very, very safe.
A valuable piece of cinema for Oldman’s performance and what will no doubt still intrigue history buffs, Darkest Hour, in spite of it’s lead, leaves a lot wanting.
Darkest Hour is in cinemas from January 11