Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour

2017, PG-13, 125 min. Directed by Joe Wright. Starring Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Ben Mendelsohn, Stephen Dillane, Ronald Pickup, Richard Lumsden, Nicholas Jones.

REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Dec. 15, 2017

With his jowly countenance and stout physique, British statesman Winston Churchill resembled an English bulldog, a plucky creature who growled words of encouragement during rousing BBC radio broadcasts that inspired a nation to resist the threat of German invasion shortly after the outbreak of World War II. As Britain’s chief of state at a critical juncture in Western history, he rallied a beleaguered commonwealth to never surrender in appeasement to a reviled Adolf Hitler. In the historical drama Darkest Hour, an unrecognizable Gary Oldman slips into Churchill’s sallow skin to replicate this wartime hero during his early tenure as prime minister, down to the chomp of his cigar. It’s an uncanny physical transformation, as if a holograph from 1940 were beamed to the present day to perform the role. Cognizant of this startling effect, the film tantalizingly anticipates Oldman’s initial appearance as members of Parliament debate who should succeed a disgraced Neville Chamberlain, finally revealing the actor’s presence with a struck match lighting a stogie in a darkened bedroom, followed by a raised morning shade illuminating both him and a scotch-and-egg breakfast. It’s a clever introduction to a performance that may be too clever for the movie’s own good.

A nagging question persists throughout Darkest Hour: Is Oldman’s compulsively meticulous turn here anything more than a brilliant impersonation? The answer is yes, but it’s a performance that always stands apart from the rest of the film. Director Wright captures the chaos of a country facing the imminent threat of bloodshed on its home soil (the Blitz was soon to come), and demonstrates a fondness for tracking and aerial shots to depict the Brits’ losing war on the Continent, culminating in the retreat at Dunkirk. But he can’t convincingly realize Anthony McCarten’s screenplay’s ineffectual attempts to humanize the irascible leader through relationships with his supportive wife, Clementine (a sorely underused Scott Thomas, given only a handful of scenes), and the awed typist who records his speeches (James). When the narrative sends Winnie underground to poll the commonfolk on the subway so he might understand firsthand his constituency’s views on war vs. peace, the movie hits the brakes and goes off the rails, screeching. To be fair to Wright: Not even the most gifted of filmmakers could make this completely fabricated scene plausible. It’s as if a third-rate Frank Capra suddenly took over and retitled the movie Mr. Churchill Rides the Tube. Harrumph, indeed.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Joe Wright Films
Musical rewrite of the tragic love triangle never hits the high notes

Kimberley Jones, Feb. 25, 2022

Peter Pan origin story goes off the plank

Kimberley Jones, Oct. 9, 2015

More by Steve Davis
Book Club: The Next Chapter
Tedious sequel recycles that Golden Girls energy again

May 12, 2023

Fascinating life story of the Black knight is foiled by its own polemic

April 21, 2023


Darkest Hour, Joe Wright, Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Ben Mendelsohn, Stephen Dillane, Ronald Pickup, Richard Lumsden, Nicholas Jones

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle