If you looked up the definition of “Oscar Bait” in the dictionary, you just might see a picture of Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour, covered in makeup and prosthetics and a fat suit to play the portly Winston Churchill. Uglying yourself up was considered a shortcut to Oscar glory for some time (see also: Charlize Theron in Monster, Christian Bale in The Fighter, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club, etc etc). And depicting a famous wartime figure? It’s like shooting fish in a barrel. It’s up to the filmmaker, then, to make such things worthwhile. To make sure it works as a movie on its own beyond simply being a showcase for the central performance. Do it well, and you can have something like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, a portrait of the man that frames the macrocosm of his life through the microcosm of a specific event. Do it poorly, and you get The Iron Lady, an insufferable, inert bore of a movie with a pretty good (and pretty wasted) performance at its center. So the question is established: where would Darkest Hour fall?
From the structure of the script, Darkest Hour seems to be more of a Lincoln, beginning with a raucous session of the House of Commons over the inability of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) to successfully stand up to the growing Nazi regime in Europe. At risk of losing control of the British Parliament, Chamberlain steps down, with King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) reluctantly naming firebrand Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) as his replacement. Churchill faces quite a bit of resistance from the Lords of his party announcing his intention to fight the Germans and eschew suing for peace. With his new secretary (Lily James) at his side, Churchill is tasked with weighing the will of his party against that of the people while dealing with his first major crisis in control: the evacuation of Dunkirk.
Yep, Dunkirk. Darkest Hour marks the third (third!) movie of 2017 to deal with the evacuation of Dunkirk (joining, well, Dunkirk and the little seen Their Finest, a drama/comedy about making a movie about Dunkirk, signaling the snake’s cue to eat its own tail), and the second time director Joe Wright has tackled the subject. Atonement’s sprawling single take Dunkirk sequence in some ways made him the director he is today, so it’s interesting to see the same conflict presented from the other side. In Darkest Hour, the Dunkirk evacuation is framed from the other side of things, all important men making important decisions miles from the conflict in cramped spaces and fortified bunkers waiting for news. It makes for an interesting companion to Christopher Nolan’s summer hit, showing the desperation on the other side of the conflict and the belief that, should the forces fall, the war effort would be all but lost. And Churchill is in the middle of it, eager to prove his worth as his party leaders plan a vote of no confidence if things don’t break the right way.
Despite the lack of traditional action you might expect in a war movie, Wright’s visual swagger is still very much present. His war is played out through the percussive mashing of typewriters and the pensive, nervous puffing of cigars. But that doesn’t deter Wright from flexing his muscles, this time thanks to the camerawork of one of the best in the business, Bruno Delbonnel (he of Inside Llewyn Davis fame). It’s all presented in a rather stage-like manner (though not to the extent of his outrageously stage-y Anna Karenina, but what could be?), with sets shot in portrait from a distance and rooms surrounded by blackness to highlight the cramped quarters of the war council. There are no sequences with the scope of his Atonement work, but this story shouldn’t have a sequence like that. It wouldn’t make sense. But the look of it all is still rather impressive, a good mix of set design, color and shrewd camera placement that makes a relatively staid and static environment have quite a lot of life, all things considered. But this is all (pardon the pun) set dressing. Darkest Hour is built around Oldman.
Oldman’s performance is certainly something; he’s buried under all sorts of things designed to make him not look like himself, though every now and then the camera angle is just so that you can see his telltale features staring back at you. He does well mimicking Churchill’s accent and physicality, And there are moments of majesty here, whether it’s his defiance on the floor of the House of Commons or a fateful train trip that shows him what the people want, allowing composer Dario Marianelli’s score to swell. It’s an undoubtedly good impression, but the script doesn’t give him that much of an opportunity to build a character. And he’s not the only one; everyone else in the film is a rather thin sketch. Mendelsohn, Pickup and Stephen Dillane are fine as the traditionalists grated by Churchill’s brusque populism, and Lily James gets another someone thankless role in 2017, trading in her Baby Driver name tag for a typewriter. We get the slightest bit of depth to these characters at times, but it doesn’t amount to anything. All that matters is Oldman and Churchill, which ends up being to the film’s detriment. In the end, this is more of a The Iron Lady than a Lincoln, though being worse than the latter, it’s still better than the former. Joe Wright brings enough artistry to the presentation of Darkest Hour that it’s not without its merits, and Oldman’s performance is magnetic even if it can feel gimmicky at times. Perhaps a more balanced treatment of the script could have made it stick in the mind a little longer, but it fades too quickly from memory once the credits roll.