You can break Joe Wright down to two types of films, both of which he does really well. He’s best known for his prestige dramas (Pride & Prejudice, Anna Karenina, Atonement) and then he goes off and does these bizarre, ambitious and fun genre pieces (Hanna, Pan – one day I will write about how great Pan actually is). Darkest Hour is definitely in the former camp of prestige pictures geared for an awards run, but is ambitiously directed. It’s an exquisitely photographed and superbly acted film, yet still feels strangely flat. It’s a unique approach to the biopic to focus on a handful of weeks that would define the man’s legacy, yet it doesn’t feel as intimate as it should. It feels sadly distant from Churchill, like it’s happy to show you him but won’t make an effort to understand him and what made him such a historic figure.
Gary Oldman is as fantastic as you’ve heard and would expect. He’s one of the most castable actors around, and gives a triumphant performance as Churchill, nailing his voice, posture and idiosyncracies. He somehow finds a way to live in the mountain of expertly applied prosthetics and makeup to make him look like Churchill, acting through what could have been very distracting makeup in lesser hands. You never feel like “Oh that’s Gary Oldman in a shit ton of makeup and prosthetics”, you just feel like you’re watching Churchill. Oldman is just giving 110% in every scene, whether he’s delivering a speech or listening to his war cabinet chastise him. Churchill is under constant extreme pressure, and Oldman lets you feel that in each scene just from how he slouches, paces and his general demeanor.
The rest of the cast is capable, but Kristin Scott Thomas is terribly under-utilized as Churchill’s wife. She has an enigmatic poise and chemistry with Oldman, but you never really get to know her outside of the fact that she seems to endlessly support Churchill. This gets to what the biggest problem of the film is – it’s underwritten. The script just feels like it’s going through the motions, and this is where the film’s problems all derive from – a script that needed more work. Anthony McCarten’s script has an intriguing framework, but almost feels like somebody who read more wikipedia articles about Churchill than actual indepth research on the figure’s life. Oldman can act his ass off, and Wright can direct his ass off, but you still feel like you didn’t really learn anything about Churchill that you wouldn’t have known otherwise. There’s just a lack of perspective that really hinders the film from going to Oldman and Wright’s level.
Joe Wright brings on the extraordinary cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel and they give the film all the visual umph they can. They have a kinetic camera amping up tension, and use natural lighting and 1940s era indoor lighting to make many striking images, like you’re taking a peek back through history. There’s a fervor in Wright’s direction and imagery, and it’s hard not to see the real life parallels and why Wright felt drawn to Churchill. Wright’s last film, Pan, was a massive failure both critically and commercially. That’s a shame, because it’s a delightful and strange film that Wright directs the hell out of. Out of that failure and crisis of confidence, he found himself in Churchill’s shoes – surrounded by doubt and failure and trying to work his way through it all to make it positive. In Darkest Hour Churchill is battling with his war cabinet, who want to negotiate peace talks with Hitler, while Churchill believes they should fight on against impossible odds. Wright is doggedly fighting against the pitfalls of this biopic, and for that I respect him. Wright never just hands in a film like an assignment, he’s an auteur. Essentially, Joe Wright is a very good director who did a very good job directing this film, but didn’t make a great film out of it.