I get a similar feeling about “Darkest Hour” as I did with “The Theory of Everything” – a historical biopic about one of the most fascinating men in the history of modern society that is held together almost entirely by one stellar performance and is otherwise an above-average movie-going experience. Like with the tale of Stephen Hawking’s youth and journey through science and faith being bound by Eddie Redmayne’s performance, “Darkest Hour” gives us a bleak tale about Winston Churchill’s struggle to keep the British empire together when it needs hope the most and its biggest claim to fame is Gary Oldman’s role as Churchill and how he practically disappears in Churchill’s enormously impressive shoes.
But outside of Oldman’s performance, there really isn’t much to “Darkest Hour.” While the atmosphere is heavy and filled with a sense of looming dread and the dialogue can be fun and inventive, the cinematography is drab, the pacing is tedious, and the acting outside of Oldman ranges from okay to passable. The main reason to watch “Darkest Hour” is to see just how Gary Oldman was able to pull this performance off and to hear all the witty and intelligent dialogue he has.
Set in May 1940 as the Nazis take hold over France and begin to take over Western Europe, the British Parliament grows more worried every day that their current prime minister is unfit to lead when war is on its way and demand that he resign so they can choose a new prime minister. After much deliberation, Parliament reluctantly chooses Winston Churchill (Oldman) to be the new prime minister, because he’s the only one the opposition would approve of. Churchill, being a difficult, stubborn man who does everything mostly for himself and his pride, does not want to be prime minister, especially during a time of war. But, with no other choice and England running out of time, Winston agrees despite not having the support he truly needs to succeed.
Oldman is brilliant as Winston Churchill, practically disappearing into his role and showing us a man who was far more than just inspirational quotes. I will give the movie credit for taking a difficult man who refuses to change and turning him into such a likable, relatable character, and I feel like we can thank Oldman’s subtle gestures and fiery moments for that. Even if I wasn’t able to understand every mumbly word he said, the passion in the way he talked and the emotions on his face conveyed everything he was trying to say, from anger and heartbreak to compassion and trust.
There is certainly a quiet power to “Darkest Hour” and how it perfectly reflected the mood and atmosphere of England at that time, while also showing what Winston Churchill brought to that mood. Some of the better moments in this movie are shots and scenes of average people walking in the street and seeing how they’re taking this news, to see how the war is affecting the homeland and its people, wondering if they’ll even have a homeland soon enough. Churchill’s secretary, Ms. Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) adds a breath of fresh air to the film by keeping it grounded in reality, reminding us that there is more at stake here than just faceless soldiers and one man’s pride.
However, the pacing does really bring “Darkest Hour” down, as it slows some scenes down to a crawl. Some scenes go on far longer than need to, like many of the encounters with the former prime minister, while others repeat many of the same beats that make the film feel repetitive at times. While the pacing starts out nicely, building up Churchill’s reveal and his rise to power, it does get steadily worse as the film goes on.
Overall, “Darkest Hour” is an above-average war film that analyzes the political and domestic effect WWII had on Britain, bolstered by a top-class performance from Gary Oldman. Even at its worst, the film is still serviceable as a bio-pic of Winston Churchill. While it can be bleak and unforgiving at times, it offers a harsh look at Britain that is often overlooked, which makes this one worth seeing.
Final Grade: C+