Director: Joe Wright
Writer: Anthony McCarten
Actors: Gary Oldman, Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas
Oscar season is here and biopics are upon us. One of the easiest ways to grab the attention of the academy is to bring a talented actor and make him play in a biopic. Lincoln, Last King of Scotland, Jackie, The Iron Lady... etc. The list goes on and on. Darkest Hour joins these films as becoming an Oscar grab for its lead actor. When watching this film I realized that I had a serious issue with most of these biopics. I feel like a lot of them (especially ones that only manage to get best actor/actress award and nothing else), have great acting coupled with a bland film. Darkest Hour unfortunately follows this trend.
I feel like when it comes to biopics, there are two ways of tackling it. Either you go for a very famous person and just focus on the accuracy and the actor playing that role, or you choose something a bit more obscure that has an interesting story that not many people knew about. Darkest Hour falls into the first category. These films I have started to notice stopped being about the person portrayed, and more of the person who is portraying, the actor. These films are starting to feel like a 2 hour long period in which an actor can just do his work and get that award and go back to doing the stuff he usually does. I feel like the reason for this, is that when it comes to biopics with very famous people, the tension is gone. Hear me out. When watching Lincoln for example, the whole film is building towards the decision to end slavery. At every corner the film tries to build up tension by suggesting there may be some opposition, or that they don't have enough votes. But all of it was in vain. Why? Because we all know what happens before they even announced the film. Slavery was abolished. The whole film then just feels like a time frame in which Daniel Day Lewis can fight for his third Oscar and not a film about Abraham Lincoln. This is the same with Darkest Hour. I much rather prefer biopics of more obscure figures in history. Films like My Left Foot, Raging Bull, The Kings Speech, and many more. These films not only give us great performances but also a very interesting and engaging film/story-line.
As I previously said, these biopics are starting to feel more like films about the actors and not the characters. Whether that's good or bad depends on your perspective on things. However, this is not me taking away anything from Gary Oldman's performance. I thought it was absolutely brilliant. I have loved Oldman's acting since I saw him playing the menacing Stansfield in Leon: The Professional. I always knew he deserved an Oscar, but he never quite got "that film" that would secure it. Here's hoping this film is it. This is because as I said, his performance was really really good. First I want to give props to the make-up artists that worked on his look, because the whole time watching the film I kept on forgetting this was Gary Oldman. Obviously this is not just due to the make-up because Oldman's performance felt integrated within him. All of the moves, the subtle inflections in his voice, the pitch, and everything else felt natural. It felt like Winston Churchill was on the screen. His speeches were really great to watch and were the highlights of the film. All in all, I don't think anyone can disagree that Oldman did a great job in this role. Where there can be debate is whether or not the movie surrounding it was any good.
The film has a couple of major story flaws that really brought the film down in my opinion. The first is the focus on the character of Elizabeth Layton played by Lily James. I did not see any point to that whatsoever. I know the film tried to revolve around speeches and how Churchill used his words to get what he wanted. But I just felt like this plot line of Miss Layton was just a way to fill in time. I would have much rather seen more dimensions to Churchill rather than just focusing on this short period of time of his life. The other major flaw which I already touched upon was the lack of tension. I mean this is not the fault of the people making the film. This is just how it is when you are doing a film about a person so famous. But nevertheless it does affect the film because the ending just falls flat on its face. There is an attempt at some buildup of tension and it just goes nowhere. Which is sad but that's just how these films feel to me.
Although Darkest Hour had some shortcomings, there were some elements that did surprise me. The pacing was actually pretty good. I never felt bored during the whole two hours of the film. This may be due to Oldman's captivating performance, but nevertheless the film never felt like a drag to me. I heard some people say the opposite, but to me personally, I was never bored. Another thing I really enjoyed were some of the choices done in terms of cinematography and the score. There were certain shots that were done in the film that felt really great. Like when Churchill is about to give his first speech and the room just fills up with this ominous red light which is indicating they are live. Him sitting in the bathroom as Roosevelt is on the line waiting for a response. Or even when he gets on the elevator and you see nothing but him going up, which gave this feeling of loneliness and hopelessness. The examples given were really surprising to see. However, they were pretty few and far between. I wanted the director to push more in order to get a more visually appealing film. Nevertheless, it had its moments. Other than that, I quite enjoyed the score of the film. It wasn't something I would remember in a couple of weeks, yet it wasn't something that was just in the background that went unnoticed. I specifically remember thinking "Huh, that sounds good". But beyond that it did not push the boundaries and give us something really special.
Darkest Hour is a film that does many things right and misses out on many. It is a film that feels like it could be great but just managed to stay good with many of its elements. Other than Oldman's performance, the film is just a run of the mill basic historical biopic. It manages to give us glimpses of interesting elements like certain camera shots or certain scores that fit well with the content. Yet these are very rare and merely serve the purpose of getting the viewer's attention. The film may very well be Oldman's first real chance at nabbing an Oscar, but it will ultimately be forgotten due to its many shortcomings in everything else other than the performance.