Darkest Hour is the 13th film to be made about Winston Churchill and the second in 2017 alone, and that doesn’t count Dunkirk, a film in which he doesn’t appear but which does cover the same events. With a topic garnering so much attention, to the point of saturation it could be argued, you had best make sure that something about your film stands out. In a year with so many biopics and with two other films covering the same territory, Darkest Hour does give itself a bit of distinction, but not nearly enough.
Darkest Hour covers the period of time in Great Britain just prior to Neville Chamberlain being forced out of the office of Prime Minister of England due to a lack of faith in his ability to wage war against Hitler and ends with the rescue of the British troops from the shores of Dunkirk. Unlike the earlier Dunkirk which showed the event from the point of view of the soldiers stranded and being picked off on the French beaches, Darkest Hour focuses more on the political intrigue surrounding Churchill’s earliest days in office.
I’m going to come right out and say it straight away, Darkest Hour is prototypical biopic fare. You’ve seen this movie before, perhaps even about Winston Churchill, in which we have a great actor give a great performance about a renowned historical figure making it appear as if they can do no wrong and anyone who opposes them in any way may as well be a supervillain in a comic book film and along the way we have some good to great cinematography. That sums up Darkest Hour in a nutshell: rote, by the numbers but very competent biopic filmmaking.
Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill is excellent. You do see past the veneer of Winston every once in a while and catch Gary peeking through, but overall his portrayal of the man who charted England’s course through World War II is captivating. Churchill’s lauded dry and often self-deprecating wit shines through, and on top of that Oldman shows us how Churchill learned to transform himself from a cranky recluse to a someone who truly loved people in order to better perform his duties. It’s the depth the performance needed to make sure Oldman was truly embodying a character and not just mimicking another famous person. One scene late in the film which takes place on a commuter train is particularly captivating and during those ten minutes or so you forget completely you are watching one person play another, or even that you are watching a film, but become entirely engrossed in watching a man evolve into a someone better than he was before.
The cinematography is also excellent for the most part. For a film so focused on locales we are used to seeing grandly shot such as Buckingham Palace and the British Parliament Building, director of photography Bruno Delbonnel gave us a much more claustrophobic, dingy style than we are used to in the grand towers of London to convey the sense of fear and uncertainty so prevalent at the time. It’s a smart choice and makes for some truly spectacular shots. The one problem I do have with the cinematography is that every now and then Delbonnel does show off and give us a truly artistic visual which is momentarily awe-inspiring but breaks the mood and flow of the film due to it being so out of place. Without giving away spoilers, I’ll say that most any shot in the film which starts or finishes from an aerial viewpoint is an example of what I mean.
But, in a year which seems to be redefining how the biopic is made whether it be American Made‘s resemblance to an action film, Stronger‘s nearly complete lack of dramatization, or Professor Marston and the Wonder Women‘s combination of tone, themes, and subject matter, Darkest Hour‘s greatest sin is that it is a very stereotypical biopic. Winston Churchill is the focus of every scene and is shown to have barely any weakness or character flaw and even on those rare occasions only to allow us to sympathize with him. His enemies are practically cartoon villains and exist only for us to cheer when Churchill overcomes their plots. The film shows us that the people who opposed Churchill did so because they feared what war would do to Great Britain and wanted to engage Hitler in peace talks. With the gift of 75 years of hindsight we can see that Churchill was in the right, but to portray those seeking peace as fools and villains is not only a disservice to diplomats and pacifists everywhere but also makes for a far less interesting story.
Final verdict: Darkest Hour is a film worth seeing due to great cinematography and performances, but don’t expect much in the way of enlightenment from it. We loved films like Ray, Walk the Line, and A Beautiful Mind, but the art form of the biopic has evolved since then, and Darkest Hour is a biopic of the less evolved kind. If you’re a fan of World War II or biographies in general and are just looking for some light entertainment, then Darkest Hour is an excellent choice. If you want something truly thoughtful, truly emotional, and truly insightful, though, there have been quite a few better choices to head out and see from just this year alone.