Darkest Hour Review: Gary Oldman Carries This Safe Biopic

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The man Darkest Hour has most on its mind goes by the name of Oscar. Director Joe Wright has constructed a film that so methodically touches all the classic beats of the biopics of yore, while injecting crowd-pleasing warmth yet disguising it with a solemn blue/gray filter. The film has the ingredients to appeal to every kind of awards voter as they have traditionally come, to the point where there might as well be a golden statue silhouetted in the bottom right corner, just to remind you in the moments where Gary Oldman truly and absolutely transports us that he should be holding one come March.

Taking more than a few cues from Steven Spielberg’s borderline-masterpiece Lincoln, Darkest Hour aims to be an honest portrait of one of the modern world’s most beloved leaders and inspirers—and speech givers. Taking place in just May of 1940, as Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) is pushed out of power for Winston Churchill (Oldman) to begin his reign and aggressively bring Britain into the war consuming Europe, the film chronicles just a morsel of Churchill’s tenure, exposing not how he was over the course of his life, but how one moment shook and changed him as a human and as a public figure.

That moment ends up being the evacuation of essentially Britain’s entire army from Dunkirk. But there are very few scenes of war here, making Darkest Hour the talky backroom political drama a complete opposite of Christopher Nolan’s almost silent war-horror film from this past summer (they’d make a fulfilling double feature, I suspect). But also like Lincoln, there are warm side characters, such as Churchill’s transcriber Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), to try and make all of Parliament’s complications into a more entertaining piece. But Wright doesn’t wield the talents of a filmmaker of Spielberg’s stature. The film’s lighter moments may help in inserting variety into the film’s almost lifeless tone, but they’re typically backed by cliches, not the humanity needed to sell them as genuine.

But Darkest Hour isn’t a lifeless film, and that’s because of Gary Oldman. His Churchill—which just edges out John Lithgow’s turn on Netflix’s The Crown—is what merges all of the film’s wildly separate parts together into a cohesive whole. He brings the gravitas to the power he has in his country’s situation, while also placing the humanity needed for the moments he needs to connect with the audience to land. There’s tension in Churchill’s emotions, as commanded willfully and flawlessly by the veteran actor. So if Darkest Hour is going to go for the gold it’s so desperate to earn, let it go to Oldman, the man most concentrated on and authentic to history’s sketch of Winston Churchill. Like Daniel Day Lewis’ portrait of Abraham Lincoln, it’s not just great, it’s definitive. Grade: B

By Matt Dougherty

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