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Darkest Hour: A Review



My Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT - in the theatre if you like very conventional movies or SKIP IT - if you are a creature of the art house, and see it on cable or Netflix for free.

Darkest Hour, written by Anthony McCarten and directed by Joe Wright, is the story of Winston Churchill in the very early days of his leadership of the United Kingdom during World War II. The film stars Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, with supporting turns from Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James and Stephen Dillane.


My late father was quite the well-read history buff and was a great admirer of Winston Churchill. My father also had, frankly, a rather pedestrian taste when it came to films, or as he would call them "flicks". For instance he loved the movie Hanky Panky starring Gene Wilder but loathed Apocalypse Now. Like my father, I too enjoy history (although certainly not the kind of history he would approve of) but unlike my father I am a creature of the art house whose cinematic tastes run to the more high minded or as he would say, I am a "movie snob". I plead guilty as charged. 

In regards to Darkest Hour, the film is a much more serious undertaking than Hanky Panky, but I think my father would have thoroughly enjoyed this movie a tremendous amount because it is a straight forward, standard Hollywood historical drama. I, on the other hand, was, for the most part, terribly underwhelmed by the film for the exact reason conventional film fans will like it. I didn't hate Darkest Hour, but I didn't love it either, which disappointed me no end as I had high expectations. 


Gary Oldman has long been one of my favorite actors. Oldman is a unique actor because, although he is British, he is a very "American" actor. What I mean by that is that he embodies much of what the "American school" of acting, particularly in the 1970's, cherished, namely a wild, incandescent and powerfully volcanic artistic energy. Unlike Oldman's fellow British actors of his generation like Daniel Day-Lewis, Ralph Fiennes, Colin Firth, Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh, Oldman is not the picture of artistic refinement and reserve, but more a study in the artistically voracious libido and barely contained fury. 

Oldman's earlier iconic work as Sid Vicious, Lee Harvey Oswald, Dracula and Beethoven made him an cult idol among other actors. Actors of my generation were enamored with Oldman's embrace of chaos and robust unpredictability that pulsated with a mesmerizing fearlessness. 

In recent years Oldman has shifted to a more finely crafted and technically precise approach to his work, most notably in Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy. In Darkest Hour, Oldman has the best of both worlds as he is able to combine both his acute attention to detail, his supreme mastery of craft and his combustible artistic energy to create his very own sublime version of Winston Churchill. 

Oldman's Churchill is not the legend we have been force fed ad infinitum, but rather he is an almost Trumpian figure in his insecurity and lack of respectability. Oldman plays Churchill as a mentally frenetic and emotionally frightened mouse running on a wheel chasing something he wouldn't know what to do with if he caught it. Oldman's inquisitive eyes dart around seeking solace amidst the ocean of Churchill's self doubt while they simultaneously convey a deep sensitivity that reveals more about the man than any of his bombastically eloquent words ever could. 

Playing an iconic historical figure is always fraught with artistic danger for the actor. Historical icons are not people they are archetypal gods, and when actors try to portray them they usually play the legend and not the actual humanity behind it. Oldman does not make that error, as his Churchill is only too human with his signature explosive rage occasionally bubbling to a surface that borders on the doddering and frail. 

Oldman's work as Churchill would be guaranteed to win an Oscar in years past, but with a whole new membership in the Academy, predicting Oldman's win is a much dicier proposition now. He is certainly worthy of an Oscar for his work in Darkest Hour, that is for sure, but he has been worthy of the award before and has only received one nomination in his entire career (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy). 


Unfortunately, Darkest Hour never lives up to the superior work Gary Oldman does in it. The film is a painfully conventional filmmaking exercise. The movie suffers from serious perspective problems that undermine it as a character study of Churchill and instead turn the movie into a rather poor, paint-by-numbers historical bio-pic. If director Joe Wright had simply given the audience only Churchill's perspective rather than his secretary, his wife and his political opponents perspective, than Oldman's transcendent performance would have been even more phenomenal and created a more intimate and ultimately interesting film about Churchill.


In a film when you show a historical icon like Churchill through the eyes of the people around him, you are just regurgitating legend, which is never artistically satisfying, whereas when you show the personal, inner life of a historical icon, then you are giving audiences a truly intriguing and unique perspective on the humanity behind the legend. Churchill was a brilliant performer, well aware of his image and controlling and massaging it in order to manipulate people. Director Joe Wright makes the mistake of showing us Churchill as performer and does not give us enough glimpses behind the curtain to see the true man. Perspective issues like this are a deadly trap when making a historical bio-pic, and sadly, director Joe Wright fell face first into it.

The perspective issue isn't the only problem with the movie, as the dialogue at times borders on the embarrassing. Besides Oldman, there are some serious acting issues as well. Kristin Scott Thomas is a fine actress but she gives a dreadfully broad performance as Churchill's wife Clementine. There are also a coterie of actors in a sequence in a subway that are all so bad they are simply atrocious. 


On the bright side, one actress who does do solid work in a supporting role is Lily James who plays Churchill's secretary Elizabeth Layton. James is an alumnus of Downton Abbey and proves herself a capable and compelling actress in Darkest Hour


There are a few sequences in the film involving Ms. James' character that I am interested to see if they garner any attention due to the current climate of sex panic sweeping the globe (RIP: Careers of Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer…just kidding…couldn't have happened to two bigger charlatans). For instance, Churchill often worked from his bed and would have secretaries come into his room and take dictation while he lounged in his sleeping clothes. In the film, Churchill twice has "Charlie Rose" moments of inappropriateness with his secretary who simply giggles the embarrassment away. As I watched these scenes I could not help but wonder if our current Sex Panic Outrage Machine will be aimed at Darkest Hour for "trivializing" such behavior that has recently become abhorred. Ironically enough, if Harvey Weinstein had a film in competition with Darkest Hour for an Oscar, you can bet your ass he would surreptitiously weaponize that issue in a campaign against the movie in order to beat it at the Oscar ballot.

As for Darkest Hour's artistic crew, they do create a nice-to-look-at version of 1940's England, as the set and costume design are supremely well done. Oldman's makeup is seamless and really remarkable as well, so much so that except for his expressive eyes, it is tough to tell it is Gary Oldman and not really Winston Churchill.


Beyond that, Joe Wright shows he is really not much of a heavyweight director and it is his failings that ultimately doom Darkest Hour to the purgatory of the average. As much as I enjoyed Gary Oldman's performance, as a cinephile I ended up being unimpressed by Darkest Hour. The film also suffers from the fact that the far superior Dunkirk covered some of the same history and material as did Darkest Hour. Which brings me to the McCaffrey/Isaiah Wave Theory. The McCaffrey-Isaiah Wave Theory is a predictive model that in conjunction with other elements, uses commercially and/or critically successful films as sign posts of the collective unconscious and leading indicators of future trends.

The McCaffrey-Isaiah Wave Theory is much too complicated to get into here (at the pace I am currently on, I hope to have my book on the subject finished by my ancestors no later than the spring of 2269) but there are some things to note in regard to Darkest Hour. The most obvious one is this…the Winston Churchill archetype is currently ascendant in our culture. Besides Darkest Hour and Dunkirk, in which Churchill never appears but his spirit and words are ever present, there was Jon Lithgow's Emmy Award winning performance as Churchill on Netflix's very popular show The Crown. Anytime an archetype shows up three times in a calendar year you know it is an energy that refuses to be ignored. 


The Churchill archetype is a brand that is often misappropriated because it is so Manichean in its clarity. Churchill stood strong against the Nazi's, therefore modern politicians and their supporters think of their enemies as Nazis and themselves as Churchill. For instance, Dubya was held up as a Churchillian figure by sycophants in his party and the media in regards to the invasion of Iraq and his quixotic "War on Terror". No doubt Trump supporters see him as a Churchillian figure standing up to entrenched political interests and the deep state that have suffocated America. 

The danger of the Churchill archetype is that it too easily feeds the impulse to be obstinate, aggressive and intellectually incestuous. There are a lot of Churchills running around right now convinced their enemies are Nazis and that they themselves are on the side of the righteous. Obviously, the obstinacy of Churchill-ism does not thrive in domestic politics, as even Churchill himself struggled mightily when the focus was entirely on domestic affairs.  

That said, Churchill was certainly a unifying figure for the British when, at their "Darkest Hour", they desperately needed one. The ascendance of the Churchill archetype at our current moment is leading to more division and less unification domestically because of a lack of an existential external threat. If an event occurs, a catastrophic terror attack or North Korea military action for instance, then maybe the Churchill archetypal energy will cease to be one that fuels civil strife but rather unites peoples in a battle against forces that threaten them from afar. Regardless of how the Churchill archetypal energy manifests, it is important to be conscious of it because it is a powerful force and one that can be very destructive and sometimes self-destructive.


As far as the film Darkest Hour goes, Gary Oldman does give a truly magnificent performance that is definitely worth seeing at the very least on Netflix or cable. If your taste in films runs more to the standard and conventional, then I think you will really like this film and recommend you go pay to see it in the theatre. If you are an art house connoisseur and cinephile such as myself, then the conventionalism of this film will frustrate you and you'll be better off waiting to see it for free when and where you can. As to which of those groups you belong, like Churchill, only you can be the final arbiter of that decision.