I’ll be the one to say what no one else is willing to say: World War II movies are a dime a dozen. Okay, that might be a slight (and only slight) exaggeration, but every year, audiences are inundated with one World War II film after the next with almost all of them receiving nearly-unanimous praise regardless of actual quality. Heck, two of this year’s five Golden Globe nominees for Best Picture – Drama are World War II films (this film and Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk). The very same people who complain about the number of comic book films in any given year will gleefully overlook the mass of World War II films that are released and eat each of them up with a smile.
For me, a film about war has to win me over using the same attributes that any other movie uses: story, character, dialogue, acting, directing, originality, and entertainment value. Not every one of those aspects has to be spot on (or even mostly present), but the overall combination of them must be more good than bad.
The World War II “genre” (for lack of a better word) has proven problematic for me because many – if not most – of them simply echo each other. They use the same character archetypes and narrative themes, as well as situational conflicts, and tell slightly altered versions of the same story: surviving the horrors of war through brotherhood or through policy (depending on if the perspective is chosen to be from the battle lines or from the commanding offices).
Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour does little to buck that trend, despite ample opportunity. In May of 1940, when Britain shows no confidence in their current Prime Minister, Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) is appointed in his place to deal with the seemingly unstoppable threat of Adolf Hitler’s German regime. Churchill’s eccentric personality and unconventional governance turn him into a political island as those close to him try to assist him in using his intelligence to build bridges with his allies and work together to save their country.
Gary Oldman is practically unrecognizable as Churchill. No amount of praise for the film’s makeup and prosthetics departments can ever be enough. His look is so convincing that I was questioning whether or not he actually went all out and gained weight for the film to help the transformation along. Remarkably, that wasn’t the case, but what the folks behind the scenes started, Oldman finished.
That’s because one undeniable fact about Darkest Hour is that Gary Oldman gives a knockout performance, completely worthy of the award nominations it’s already garnered for him and the others yet to come (an Oscar nomination is virtually guaranteed). Oldman doesn’t simply imitate Churchill; he becomes Churchill. The poise, the humor, the resolve . . . it’s all there and it’s supported by Oldman’s trademark authenticity that’s made him such a staple in Hollywood for so many years. And the script serves him well, providing him many opportunities to remind us why he’s come to be so respected by so many.
Sadly, Oldman is the only one served by the script. Unlike the first half of today’s double-feature, Molly’s Game, which was unquestionably Jessica Chastain’s film but still managed to make it worthwhile for Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, and their fans, Darkest Hour fails its supporting cast. I can’t fathom the thought process behind hiring talents such as Lily James or Kristen Scott Thomas if you aren’t going to give them anything notable to do. At least for James, this will be solid exposure in her young career, but Thomas is simply wasted.
Also wasted is an opportunity to make this film a unique experience under the World War II umbrella. Rather than receiving insight into Churchill in order to further comprehend how someone so uncommon for his position arrives at this particular spot in life and then handles it without losing himself, we get a mostly paint-by-numbers bureaucratic World War II film. Instead of getting a Winston Churchill character study, we simply slog through two-plus hours of Winston Churchill at work.
To further compound my point regarding World War II movie retread, the film also extensively covers the Dunkirk evacuation, and the three hours of that we received this summer was more than enough for me. Throw in largely bland dialogue, and what we have is more of the same old same-old. Only one scene that takes place on the underground (that’s “subway” to those of us who are American) truly stood out as something different and even special. But is one scene enough?
I understand that the film provided a great outlet for Oldman to once again show us his chops – and he is the film’s saving grace – but I have a hard time coming up with artistic justification for why this project was chosen. We need more war films like The Imitation Game and fewer like . . . almost everything else in recent years. I have no issues with World War II films in theory, but creatively speaking, more effort needs to be put into distinguishing each project from the next beyond their surface qualities. Darkest Hour is not a poorly made film. It’s just one that I feel like I’ve seen dozens of times. History buffs and those interested in seeing Oldman’s performance will enjoy themselves. But if neither of those apply to you, I doubt there’s much for you to latch onto here.
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