Starring Gary Oldman. Rated PG
Has it been only six months since Brian Cox waddled our way in Churchill? And in that skimpy-looking movie, Sir Winston was seen contemplating—and attempting to halt—the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944. In Darkest Hour, the U.K.’s most famous prime minister attempts to stave off Hitler’s imminent invasion four years earlier.
This time, Gary Oldman takes on the 20th-century embodiment of John Bull—and there’s a sizable serving of bull in Joe Wright’s more deluxe filmization. He’s working from a highly expository script by Anthony McCarten, who recently valorized Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything and tackles Freddie Mercury in the upcoming Bohemian Rhapsody. Oldman, whom you might remember as a snarling Sid Vicious, has the bollocks for this role. There are prosthetics, but he’s not overly padded, and doesn’t throw his voice lower to impersonate that famously cigar-and-whisky-soaked growl.
He’s well-matched with Kristin Scott Thomas, as the famously patient Clementine (Miranda Richardson in the last movie), one of the few people who could reliably prick his pomposity. But she’s not given enough to do, and some of the attention due Clemmie seems to have mysteriously shifted to trailer-genic Lily James as the new typist, initially frightened by his gruffness and his habit of dictating letters and speeches from boudoir or bathroom. (Wright treats these scenes as adorable, but they look a little Weinstein-y all of a sudden.)
The story centres on Churchill’s snap ascension after the failed appeasement campaign of the gravely ill Neville Chamberlain (played by Ronald Pickup, who stepped in when John Hurt died), and on the very day Hitler invaded France. The film posits Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) as the new PM’s chief party rival and antagonist, even if the real history is more nuanced. (To say nothing of Churchill’s horrific attitude toward the colonies.)
Nuance isn’t in Wright’s vocabulary. There’s beautifully lit cinematography by France’s Bruno Delbonnel, who lensed stylish efforts like Amélie and Across the Universe. But the director—who masterfully captured the agony of Dunkirk in Atonement—can’t resist a lordly overhead shot or a microcloseup of typewriter keys, even when these things add nothing to the drama. Even worse, for something so devoted to the careful articulation of political ideas, Dario Marinelli’s soupy score frequently drowns out the dialogue. “Churchill just mobilized the English language and sent it into battle,” Halifax admits at the end. But did he really need a 100-piece orchestra to do it?