Darkest Hour feels like a parody of the awards-bait that often plagues end-of-the-year releases.
Annually, it’s easy to get sucked back in to the awards season circus as if it were a cyclically abusive relationship. Despite its seasoned silliness and ingratiating ass-kissing, it’s always nice when smaller films are recognized, or when monumental accomplishments are earned (like Moonlight’s unexpected victory at the Oscars earlier this year). But then there are films like Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, which focuses on Winston Churchill’s efforts as British Prime Minister during the early days of World War II. Here is a film that ultimately feels as if its sole reason for existence is the performance of its leading man.
With superfluous prosthetics and a proclivity for overly-impassioned speechmaking, Gary Oldman’s performance as Churchill is what Oscar-bait performances are made of. It’s loud, it’s silly and it’s all too much, which is exactly what the Academy Awards often loves to recognize. There are about a dozen or more “Oscar clips” during the 125-minute runtime of Darkest Hour, yet it’s all within the confines of a movie that doesn’t know what to do with Oldman’s arduous and awards-gunning performance.
Even when he’s at his most eccentric, like in 1993’s True Romance or 1994’s Léon: The Professional, Oldman still manages to invigorate those performances with peculiar nuances in his approach. There are slight moments of this flair in Darkest Hour, yet it’s all too minimal to rise above the scripted pontificating that feels as if it traveled directly from a screenwriter’s wet dream to the page. Everything in the film comes off as constructed strictly around Oldman’s performance. We’re given long-winded speeches, snappy one-liners, fists slamming down on tables and endless historical drivel that comes off as alien when considering how people actually speak to one another. At the center of it all is Oldman, one of our finest living actors, giving one of his worst performances.
Darkest Hour isn’t an awful film; it’s simply not a particularly good one. When Wright isn’t centering his camera on Oldman’s “Look at me!” routine, he’s executing occasionally-interesting juxtapositions between the wide-scale chaos of war and the small-scale backroom antics of cigar-chomping alcoholics who bicker away while trying to pinpoint a path towards victory. The film moves at an engaging-enough pace yet always feels as if its lacking momentum, drifting from scene-to-scene with lethargy rather than gusto. Other performances—Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI, Stephen Dillane as Viscount Halifax, Lily James as Churchill’s secretary Elizabeth Layton—feel indebted to Oldman, always playing second fiddle with lines that seem centered on Churchill himself.
This film wants you to know that Churchill was an eccentric and a bit of a bumbling drunk, yet it timidly skirts over the more controversial components of the historical figure’s persona. It’s interesting to consider how Oldman would’ve handled this role in a completely different film—one that cared less about pandering to the masses and more about the craft. Ultimately, though, Darkest Hour feels like a parody of the awards-bait that often plagues end-of-the-year releases.