In May 1940, after replacing Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) as British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) must decide whether to negotiate a peace agreement with Nazi Germany or keep on fighting.
Undoubtedly one of Britain’s finest actors, Gary Oldman has surprisingly only ever received one Oscar nomination – for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in 2012. This is set to change with Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, which follows The King’s Speech, The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything as the latest addition to the canon of beige British historical biopics that are destined to perform very well at the Oscars.
Having already won Best Actor at this month’s Golden Globes, Oldman is the favourite to win at both the BAFTAs and the Academy Awards. There would be very few qualms if the prosthetics-laden star were to claim both awards, especially considering the failure of awards shows to acknowledge his wealth of previous work. While a little shouty, he is impressive as Churchill but it is exactly the type of bombastic performance that draws awards attention and would be redolent of Leonardo DiCaprio’s rather obvious win for The Revenant in 2016.
While Oldman’s performance is stirring, the film itself is a lacklustre affair. It charts the tumultuous month between Churchill’s appointment as Prime Minister and his renowned ‘We shall fight them on the beaches’ speech to the House of Commons in June 1940.
Much like last year’s Churchill, starring Brian Cox, the film’s decision to focus on such a short period of Churchill’s premiership is to its detriment. An inarguably excellent wartime leader, his defiance against Hitler is well documented, but Wright’s film offers nothing that we have not seen or heard about Churchill before. Its emphasis on grand speeches and glorious underdog narrative falls into cliché. This is at its most egregious during a scene on the London Underground, where Churchill consults and rallies the general public. The scene is mishandled and feels incredibly out of place, taking you right out of the film.
Instead of covering well tread ground, a focus on Churchill’s many contentious actions while pre-war statesman and wartime Prime Minister would not only offer a fresh approach to the historical biopic as a genre, it would make Churchill a considerably more interesting and challenging cinematic character. Wright highlights his protagonist’s heavy drinking and his failings at Gallipoli and in India are mentioned fleetingly, but they are swept aside swiftly as the film gives a flattering account of the Prime Minister and loses much of its dramatic potential.
The film tells its story with all the flair of a primary school History lesson.
The film boasts an impressive supporting cast, but Churchill’s dominance means that they are left with very little space to develop. Kristen Scott Thomas and Lily James as Churchill’s wife Clemmie and his secretary Elizabeth Layton respectively do their best with underwritten roles. Similarly, Ronald Pickup as Neville Chamberlain and Game of Thrones’ Stephen Dilane as Viscount Halifax are nothing more than foils for Churchill to prove wrong triumphantly.
A well-acted but turgid drama that tells its story with all the flair of a primary school History lesson, Darkest Hour is not Joe Wright’s finest. However, its nine BAFTA nominations and a win at the Golden Globes mean that the film is bound to perform well at the Oscars, with a victory for Oldman all but confirmed. Here's hoping that Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk and its celebration of the bravery of the British people during the famed evacuation triumphs over this sanitised, one-note celebration of one man's leadership.