Darkest Hour movie review: Did anyone want a Dunkirk sequel from Gary Oldman’s perspective?
Director - Joe Wright
Cast - Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Ben Mendelsohn
Rating - 3/5
By the time this is over, you will remember the name Bruno Delbonnel. He’s the man who shot Darkest Hour. Chances are, you’ve seen his work before.
You might have subconsciously appreciated his work in a couple of films by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie and A Very Long Engagement), and a couple by Alexander Sokurov. You might’ve been struck by the distinct palette he brought to the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, and if you’re a fan of the Harry Potter series, you might remember that he is responsible for the series’ only Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography for his work on the most expensive – and my personal favourite – of the lot, The Half Blood Prince. Most recently, however, he has found greater fame as the cinematographer of choice for Tim Burton.
Together with star Gary Oldman, Bruno Delbonnel is the most outstanding voice in Darkest Hour. His presence is felt, like the great actor’s, in virtually every frame of the film – through every smoky war room, and through every dingy corridor, through every close-up of Oldman’s unnervingly unrecognizable face to every overhead shot of land ravaged by war. And since a disproportionate amount of the conversation about this movie is going to revolve around Oldman’s transformative performance, I’m going to take this opportunity to talk about someone whose contribution is just as strong, but will hardly receive the same level of applause.
Don’t worry: Gary Oldman (and his cigar) will be discussed, but not before we talk about the real reason that Darkest Hour succeeds – because without them, it would certainly not warrant a recommendation.
Darkest Hour is a film that works infinitely better on a technical level than story-wise – in addition to the stunning visuals, it is also immaculately scored by Dario Marianelli, designed by Sarah Greenwood and costumed by Jacqueline Durran.
Surprisingly, the movie it reminded me of the most was Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Both films are about rather flamboyant political figures – to this day seen as among the finest men their respective countries have ever had the good fortune of being led by – but more to the point, both movies focus on a very brief moment in their lives. In Lincoln, Spielberg concentrated on the President’s efforts to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, the law that would abolish slavery. In Darkest Hour, director Joe Wright narrows the plot down to basically a month, May of 1940, when Winston Churchill was first elected Prime Minister of Great Britain.
In that month, Churchill had to establish himself as a leader, all the while battling the disdain of his peers, and the King (George VI, most memorably played by Colin Firth in The King’s Speech, and most recently by Jared Harris in Netflix’s The Crown); he had to decide whether or not to strike a peace deal with Adolf Hitler’s rapidly expanding Nazi empire, and strategise a plan of evacuation for the more than 300,000 troops trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk.
It was perhaps the most difficult predicament possible for him to have been thrust into, but as the eminently quotable man once said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.”
The first time we see him, Churchill is plonked on his bed, in his bathrobe, having a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon and a peg of scotch. His cigar, which I cannot recall him ever being separated from in the film, establishes itself as a permanent fixture in his mouth. He barks and mumbles the first of the many speeches he would deliver to a hassled secretary, our surrogate in this world, played by Lily James. Churchill’s words – his delivery of them, and his roundabout and frankly chaotic way of coming up with them – play a significant role in Darkest Hour. Of course, it all concludes with the most famous of them all, “We shall fight on the beaches…”
And as delivered by Gary Oldman, it’s tremendously moving. Worth mentioning, though, is the fact that it arrives in the film’s final scene, which was strangely spoiled in the trailer. It’s a suitably rousing moment in a movie that should ideally have had nothing but fist-pumping moments of patriotism. But that’s not the case, because for most of its two hours, Darkest Hours feels rather inert, dramatically. Were it not for Oldman’s performance, delivered from under the same three inches of makeup previously slapped on Anthony Hopkins’ face in Hitchcock, the ebbs and flows of Anthony McCarten’s overly expository script – the sort that feels the need to explain the significance of white handkerchiefs in the House of Commons, and feels compelled to address characters by their official titles lest we forget who’s who – would have been quite the impatient experience.
But then again, I had Bruno Delbonnel’s visuals to keep me distracted. Through his lens, Darkest Hour takes the appearance of an Expressionistic painting; the chiaroscuro lighting (prominent shafts of light creating high contrast shadows) recalls the works of Caravaggio and Rembrandt, as strange as it may sound. Joe Wright was already a rather flashy director – who can forget that 7-minute single take tracking shot from Atonement, or that parking lot fight sequence from Hanna? And for him to pair up with someone whose style is just as instantly recognisable as any prominent filmmaker’s sounded risky – what with clashing voices and all – but it’s the best thing about this film.
Darkest Hour, together with Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and the pleasantly surprising Their Finest, is the third movie of 2017 that features Operation Dynamo as a prominent plot point. It is also, keeping aside The Crown, the second film of 2017 about Winston Churchill. Simply based on the sheer amount of alternatives available, it isn’t up to the mark. But remember, neither of those films have Gary Oldman positively begging for an Oscar either. He did, however, deserve a better film with which to win it.
Watch the Darkest Hour trailer here