Let’s talk about Gary Oldman for a second shall we? Oldman is an actor who I wasn’t introduced to through one of his actual film roles but rather through online rumors that he would be the perfect person to play Doctor Octopus in the movie Spider-Man 2. That was a role that eventually went to Alfred Molina, but such speculation was not uncommon at the time because to a lot of people Oldman was someone who would be perfect for pretty much any role and anytime there was a high profile role that needed to be filled his name seemed to come up in the rumor mill, to the point where even Homer Simpson once insisted that Oldman would be the perfect person to play him in a movie. Part of this might have just been Oldman’s tendency to show up in movies that were popular with the young male internet dwellers of the early 2000s but it also has a lot to do with the fact that he had this odd tendency to be both a hammy scenery chewing villain in movies like Leon: The Professional, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and The Fifth Element but also a dedicatedly chameleonic presence in certain roles like his portrayal of Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK or Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy. The fact that he kind of stayed under the radar despite appearing in some fairly popular films was a help in this and gave him a certain cool factor. The odd thing is, Oldman seemed to age surprisingly quickly. Despite the internet’s obsession with him he sort of disappeared during the 2000s outside of his supporting roles in the Harry Potter and Dark Knight franchises and seemed to re-emerge in the 2010s as a seasoned British veteran in movies like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and now he’d doing the ultimate British veteran move: playing Winston Churchill in an Oscar season biopic called Darkest Hour.
Darkest Hour is set in the May and June of 1940 and begins with parliament calling for a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) for his inability to stand up to Hitler. France was on the verge of collapse and the British Expeditionary Force that was sent to assist in the defense of France was retreating to the beaches of Dunkirk and Calais; decisive action was needed. Unable to replace Chamberlain with his chosen successor Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) the Tories instead turned to the one person in their party that the opposition party would accept: the outspoken hawk Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) despite the general distaste that King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) has for him over his various previous failures. With the success of the Dunkirk evacuation very much in doubt Churchill had one very difficult decision to make: will he consider hearing Germany’s terms for surrender and call for a cease-fire or risk a potential slaughter and defeat if they aren’t able to find a way to get those men off the beach in time.
When the movie Lincoln came out a few years ago I felt like it encountered a lot of resistance less for what it was and more for what people assumed it would be. I think what they assumed it would be is a movie not unlike what Darkest Hour is actually like. I wouldn’t exactly say that the movie is a hagiography it’s certainly a movie that’s been made for people who are already very much believers in Churchill’s legacy. The film isn’t afraid to show him as a drunken old man at times but it’s not very interested in challenging his worth as a leader. The film actually serves as a sort of “Last Temptation of Churchill” and ponders what would have happened if the man whose entire legacy was built on his uncompromising certainty in the importance of fighting Nazism had considered surrendering rather than fighting. I’m not sure I buy that this was something that Churchill really dithered over as much as is shown and I also doubt there was really as much pressure being put on him to do so as is depicted here and the sequence it invents to depict how he made his final decision is frankly corny and ridiculous.
Gary Oldman is of course really good here, possibly too good. The film is very interested in showing some of Churchill’s vices, which is important as you want to illustrate why so many of Churchill’s colleagues and rivals doubted him at this point. Oldman is almost too good at making Churchill seems like a mumbling drunken old man, to the point where you really don’t get how this guy ever pulled himself together enough to be this beloved figure that he is. There are some other solid actors here like Ben Mendelsohn, who has the unenviable task of playing King George VI after Colin Firth more or less defined the role of “Bertie” in The King’s Speech but does a pretty good if not wildly memorable job just the same. Ronald Pickup is also quite good here as Neville Chamberlain, a tragic figure that I almost would have wanted to see at the center of a film like this and Kristin Scott Thomas is good as Churchill’s wife even if she doesn’t have a lot of screen time. Lily James is also good here as Churchill’s secretary, but I’m not exactly sure why her character is in the movie. She seems like she’s meant to be an audience surrogate but the movie isn’t actually from her perspective most of the time and in many ways she kind of seems like a remnant of an earlier draft of the screenplay where it was.
Darkest Hour isn’t a bad movie so much as it’s a poorly timed movie. A year or two ago a movie about the political machinations going on in the background of the Dunkirk evacuation would have seemed like fresh ground for a film but Christopher Nolan kind of made a movie this year called Dunkirk which showed the evacuation itself in visceral detail. Darkest Hour by contrast feels like little more than a crappy sub-plot that Nolan knew better than to put in Dunkirk to keep from slowing it down. The experiences of soldier’s fighting for their lives is always going to be more cinematic and interesting than the old white men bickering in dark, sometimes literally smoke-filled, rooms. And even if Nolan hadn’t made that film earlier I’m still not sure that 2017 is the best year to try to get audiences to root for a large and somewhat unconventional conservative leader to stick to his guns while in the presence of establishment doubters. The bigger problem here though is just an absence of anything overly compelling. Director Joe Wright adds a couple of interesting flourishes but does nothing to write home about and the script is not insightful enough about its subject to really add much to the conversation about him.