What I recently wrote about the 1961 film Two Women (https://film-prof.com/2017/12/31/two-women-1960-1961/) could just as easily applied to Darkest Hour—that the main point of interest was the central performance, but that the evolution of the director’s style was also worth noting.
Darkest Hour is the story of 28 days in May 1940, when the German forc\es had pushed British and French forces to the beaches of Dunkirk, and makes a timely companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s film from earlier this year. The events and personal dynamics are unsurprising as they are largely a matter of historical record, or are best left to be discovered by the viewer, so I’ll leave them alone.
The hubbub is about Gary Oldman’s performance. I’d thought that his nomination for Best Actor for 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was the Academy’s tip of the hat to a character actor long respected by his peers, but who would likely never actually win anything except an honorary Oscar for his body of work when he was too old to have his life affected by it. That’s not the case now, as he is likely to win Best Actor for this performance. There are several reasons for this: One, the other likely nominees are either former winners not necessarily turning in their best work, or newcomers that will likely have a long and award-winning career. Two, this is the ultimate Oldman performance, meaning that he is almost nowhere to be seen as an actor as he embodies one of the most famous men of the last century; he, as he so often does, disappears into his character. Three, it’s a showy, fun, marvelous performance overflowing with feeling and emotion, and one that completely dominates the film.
Of course there are other actors in the film, but they are planets around Oldman’s sun. The talented Kristin Scott Thomas joins the ranks of other tall, thin, aging, and angular actresses in playing Clemmie Churchill, and is as solid as always. The ubiquitous and lovely Lily James (best known for Cinderella and Downton Abbey) plays Churchill’s secretary (though in real life she didn’t work for the man until the next year). Her character is the audience point of connection for the film, much as Romola Garai functioned as the fictional Millie Appleyard in 2016’s Churchill’s Secret; it’s hard to relate to a Great Man, after all. James is fine if underused, and her character, beyond connecting the audience to the events of the film, does little.
It’s been a point of jesting between my wife and me that there are only really about two dozen British actors working today, and that they appear in every other British film. That’s the case here, with Ben Mendelsohn, Stephen Dillane, Samuel West popping up and even Pip Torrens (The Crown) sneaking in for a cameo.
What’s getting almost no attention is the director, Joe Wright, director of Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, and Anna Karenina. I had greatly admired Wright’s camerawork and mise-en-scène in the first film, and appreciated his dazzling if sometimes too self-conscious direction in Atonement. And then there was Anna Karenina, which had me thinking we’d lost this talented director to extreme formalism. He pulls back to his Pride and Prejudice ways here, and he moves the story along beautifully with lovely camerawork and just a formalist touch here and there that doesn’t threaten to take you out of the film. The look of the film is claustrophobic, however, with small, dark, and enclosed hallways being the norm. That, with the almost extreme emphasis on the central performance, makes for an intense and narrowly focused film that, considering that the “action” is mainly discussion and argument, moves along quickly and with surprising energy.
Sadly, we’ve reached the point where the main audience doesn’t remember the events of World War II, and information must be spoon-fed to the viewer (e.g., Churchill wasn’t reelected as prime minister after the war). The script, which isn’t as strong as the direction, falls back on misquotes, misinformation and wrong timing (e.g., Lily’s character). But it does so in minor ways that might only be frustrating to the knowledgeable historian. This leads to a few dramatic clichés, but they’re minor, and they don’t detract from the blustering and occasionally blistering portrayal by Oldman.
The film will likely be remembered as one that “contains” a great performance by an acting legend. I hope it will also be remembered as the one that brought Wright back to storytelling and stylization without extremes.