Have you ever, dear reader, wondered what was happening in Britain during Christopher Nolan’s expansive, rip-roaring Dunkirk? If the answer is ‘yes’, then Darkest Hour might appear to be an interesting companion piece: a film quintessentially focused on oration, as opposed to the frenetic action of a two-hour battle sequence. Yet, despite a bravura performance from veteran player Gary Oldman, Joe Wright’s biopic features little to love, and much to fall asleep to.
Oldman stars as Winston Churchill: garbed in a fat-suit and caked in elaborate prosthetics, you can barely recognise the man behind the mask. Stooped, imposing, and barking orders, the fearsome bulldog of British lore has not been brought to the screen in this realistic a light before. Yet, Oldman imbues the fearsome man with a jitteriness that almost, at times, suggests humility. If there’s anything to praise Darkest Hour to the rafters for, it’s the realisation of this character; even if, for Oscars sake, we might argue this had just as much to do with the makeup as the acting itself.
Following the political demise of Chamberlain, a devious opposition in the commons demands that Churchill be instated as his successor (much to the chagrin of the party and the king). Times are tough in Britain, with German troops cornering allied forces in Dunkirk, and Chamberlain’s factions looking to Mussolini to orchestrate peace talks with the Nazi party. Churchill, however, has his heart set on fighting till the bitter end. Cue a battle of wills: a master orator, possessed by the spectre of patriotism, against a party paralysed by fear and seeking a way out. As plenty have pointed out, however, most of the plot behind any tension, drama, and storytelling in Wright’s movie is inaccurate.
And therein lies the quandary. Biopics gain momentum and intrigue from the fact they’re depicting real-life events. As it is, Darkest Hour is a veritable snoozefest: it’s a film that consists almost solely of upper-class British men shouting at each other in stilted, theatrical language, in grey rooms. We know what the outcome is, and we don’t particularly care about the interim discussion. Combined with the fact that Wright can’t even justify this boredom by asserting its truth, this becomes a fatal flaw. A particular scene in which Churchill boards a tube train and holds a humorous survey of British people is painfully unrealistic, unforgivably cheesy, and insidiously false. Would a group of scared, impoverished Londoners on the verge of defeat really be so keen to die for a lost cause? I doubt it.
Another slice of alarming revisionism is to be found in the scripting of Churchill himself as some sort of benevolent, misread figure who believed in fundamental human rights and despised Hitler. Here is a man who was a mad eugenicist, believing in the inherent superiority of ‘Aryan’ peoples; a man who openly stated ‘I hate Indians’ and allowed 3 million of them to starve to death whilst officials begged him to intervene; and a man who set up concentration camps in Kenya. It seems crass and unnecessary to show it any other way, and yet Wright appears desperate to lionise his subject at any cost.
Quite aside from the dull, cheesy scripting and historical revisionism, Darkest Hour is visually bland. One shot sees a battlefield elegantly morph into the face of a dead soldier, which is particularly inspired, but the rest of the piece lacks fireworks: it’s all grey men in dull, brown rooms filtered through the sheen of digital artifice. One wonders where the award-nominations for cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel have come from – the most remarkable part of his effort is just how staggeringly standard it all turns out.
As far as the Oscars are concerned, we can only hope that this movie makes little leeway outside of Gary Oldman’s impressive performance. It’s dour, factually misleading, relentlessly boring, visually dull, and ridiculously theatrical. Biopics are a reliable source of Oscar-baiting, but if the Academy decides to honour Wright’s film, it will be a dark hour indeed.
Featured image: The Guardian.