English director Joe Wright made his name helming awe-inspiring, acclaimed adaptations fronted by Kiera Knightley: Atonement, Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina. He shook things up with his riveting action-packed, postmodern fairy tale Hanna. Then, he made Pan, a new take on Peter Pan that was only astonishing in that it was astonishingly awful, laced with bizarre revisions (what if Peter and Hook were prison buddies?!), whitewashing, confounding musical numbers, and parkour for some reason. Pan was panned, and so intensely that Wright reportedly considered walking away from film altogether. Instead, he kept calm and carried on, making the Winston Churchill biopic Darkest Hour. The result is a prestige film that feels safe and scared.
Gary Oldman stars as Churchill, who is freshly appointed prime minister at the film’s start in May of 1940. Adolf Hitler’s forces have invaded France, and threaten the whole of Europe. So it’s up to the proud island nation to determine what’s best for its people. Should Churchill listen to his advisers/political rivals, who support negotiating with Nazis for peace? Or should he channel his bullying bravado into speeches to stir the United Kingdom’s spirits and rattle that maniac dictator? It sounds like it could be exciting stuff about perseverance and bravery. But Darkest Hour rarely musters spark or excitement, filling much of its runtime with pompous white men talking. With stiff upper lips, they conspire in pretty rose gardens. With furrowed brows they argue in dimly lit war rooms. With side-eyes, they banter in regal drawing rooms. And all the while, a war rages far away, feeling almost theoretical.
It’s odd. Wright gave us on of cinema’s most harrowing images of war in his famous Atonement long take, which journeyed us through the carnage of Dunkirk. Perhaps Wright didn’t want to plagiarize himself. But keeping this major battlefront isolated on a bunker’s map is jarring, seeming to suggest that those in power have no idea of the blood on their hands. Yet Oldman’s growling Churchill dismisses such assertions with a sputtering speech about the horrors he has seen (but which we won’t.) This is less a film and more a showcase for Oldman’s Churchill portrayal. As teased out of TIFF, it is in turns blustering and slyly playful, getting across that Churchill was a man who ruffled feathers with his coarse tongue and churlish attitude, but who inspired the masses with his unwavering calls for courage. Yet shuffling this iconic historical figure from one scowled-filled meeting to another makes for a grim affair that’s low on drama.
A few years ago, Darkest Hour would seem a safe Oscar pick. Its story of a white man overcoming adversity is inspiring without being terribly challenging. It tells a historical tale that’s weighty, but not too depressing, thanks to there being no mention of the holocaust. And it’s centered around a transformative performance, as Oldman is barely recognizable under all that effects make-up and padded body suit. But the Oscar race this year is shaping up to be less safe. As I write this, there’s no clear favorite, but the buzzed about titles include Greta Gerwig’s rough-and-tumble coming-of-age dramedy Lady Bird, Sean Baker’s gritty yet lithe social issues drama The Florida Project, Luca Guadagnino’s gay romance Call Me By Your Name, and Guillermo del Toro’s girl-meets-fish tale The Shape of Water. Sure, there are more predictable picks like Christopher Nolan’s war drama Dunkirk and Steven Spielberg’s beautifully timed The Post, which boasts two of the most beloved performers in Hollywood, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. But even among these more expected award season offerings, Darkest Hour feels safe and uninspired.
It’s not a bad film, rather it’s one where Wright seems terrified of taking a chance. There’s no astounding long takes that have everyone gasping. There’s not unconventional staging like the surreal theater setting of Anna Karenina. And the production design is so dedicatedly maudlin you might remember the film being shot all in shades of grey. Despite reliably solid supporting turns by Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn and Stephen Dillane, Darkest Hour feels like an obligation instead of an event. The only time the film feels unpredictable and alive is when Churchill bails on his driver and flees to the subway.
There, surrounded by civilians gawking at the Prime Minister on the tube, the focus opens to include people beyond the privileged circle of lords, politicians, and literal royals. In one brief scene, bricklayers and homemakers, women and one lone Black man get to sound of in a pivotal moment (that is entirely fictitious). It’s a scene meant to show Churchill speaks for them. But it’s undercut by the uneasy fact that he’s been purposefully preventing the public from hearing the worst news from the front. Their consent to go to war is compromised by the lies he’s announced over the radio. Still, the film soldiers on, seemingly assuming we all know Churchill—despite his gruffness, his drinking, and his deceptions—was a good guy. The inevitability of his legacy hangs over the film, making it all feel like a victory lap, and a sluggish one at that.
I hated, hated, hated Pan. But Wright’s Pride and Prejudice, Hanna, and Anna Karenina made me dizzy with their passion, poignance, and daring. Darkest Hour is fine, but forgettable. You can feel the filmmaker’s fear of failure in every bog-standard biopic scene. My hope is this will do well enough that Wright will regain his confidence. Because even with his stumbles, he is an incredible talent. I long to see his next big swing, now that this warm-up is out of his system.