Darkest Hour (2017)
It’s a pleasure that traditional biopics are losing favor with critics and audiences; they’ve clogged up the awards season for far too long. This year, we have seen Victoria & Abdul make a bit of money from Judi Dench phoning it in, but we found films like Breathe, The Man Who Invented Christmas, LBJ, and Stronger gaining little favor with traditional storytelling models. Gary Oldman, favorite to win best actor since the film was announced, climbs in the well-worn shoes of Winston Churchill for Darkest Hour and another go at awards baiting through makeup and mimicry. Think Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady; this role seems pretty unbeatable.
I can’t say I was particularly enthralled by Darkest Hour. The formula was there, though screenwriter Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything) fills the film with flashy pieces primed for Oldman’s impression to prove both powerful, challenging, and crowd pleasing. Focused on the brief period between Churchill gaining the nomination for prime minister to the invasion of Dunkirk, a very popular subject this year, there should be a rapid, urgent feeling behind the film, but director Joe Wright (Atonement) finds punchiness but little weight as Churchill struggles with becoming a wartime leader of his embattled country. A lovely film, with Dario Marianelli’s rhythmic score and some stellar production and costumes to decorate the awards bait and some strong cinematography from Bruno Delbonnel, it’s shiny coat doesn’t hide how much the film can drag.
I won’t lie. There were portions that are valuable. Churchill in debate halls or speaking to citizens on the bus have a certain enthralling measure with Oldman’s cantor, but much like Streep in The Iron Lady or Helen Mirren in The Queen, the role is more impersonation than nuanced acting. They aren’t bad performances, but they lack subtlety of stronger roles in their respective years (Viola in The Help; any other nominee in 2006). The gravelly voice behind that assuredly-to-be-nominated, likely winning makeup and weight, Oldman’s hurumphing is sure to be acknowledged with a little gold man come this March. The old guard is still alive and kicking, so roles like Timothée Chalamet’s in Call Me By Your Name are unlikely to win or Robert Pattinson’s in Good Time are never going to be nominated. The game is afoot, more nerve-wracking than this movie for those of us who thrive on awards season like bros playing fantasy football. Consider this role a Patriots-style insertion: hard to beat, but we’re really not happy about it.