Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour

Movie Review: Darkest Hour (2017) “We Shall Never Surrender”

Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour
Gary Oldman’s performance as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour has been hailed for months as the best of his career.  He’s been all but assured of his first Oscar (though now that Daniel Day-Lewis is retiring, who knows?).  Is the performance as good as the hype?  Yes.  Oldman disappears into the dogged British Prime Minister and is riveting to watch.  Unfortunately, similar to Denzel Washington’s excellent performance in Roman J. Israel Esq. this is a case where the performance is much better than the movie in which it takes place.

Darkest Hour
Darkest Hour’s biggest problem is that it has an amorphous beginning and ending, chronicling May 1940 when Churchill replaced Neville Chamberlain as PM, the Nazis completed their steamrolling of Western Europe, and the Miracle at Dunkirk occurred.  This film could be taken as a companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, still 2017’s best film, in that it shows the broader scope back in England that spawned Operation: Dynamo.

Lily James and Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour

How much you enjoy Darkest Hour, aside from marveling at Oldman’s performance, is going to depend a lot on how much you know about the political machinations that embroiled Britain as the Nazi war machine inched ever closer to their island.  I have read a lot of history, so there was nothing new in this film (and what was, I’m pretty sure was dramatic license) for me to learn.  If you don’t know how turbulent that time was, you may get more out of the film, which is more of a political thriller than a biopic of Churchill or a war film.

Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour

Joe Wright is not one of my favorite directors, and I thought the film suffered through some serious pacing problems.  It could have done with some tighter editing and a better framework, especially for the film’s ending which just sort of fizzles, leaving the coda to deliver the payoff to two hours of talking about momentous events with text on black screen.

Kristin Scott Thomas and Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour

Oldman has a strong supporting cast.  Kristen Scott Thomas as his wife Clemmie and Lily James as his secretary were especially good.  Oldman himself is unrecognizable.  He’s not my favorite onscreen Churchill.  Albert Finney in HBO’s The Gathering Storm takes that prize.  He is, however, a masterful actor delivering perhaps the performance of his career and one of the best of 2017.  The film is worth watching if for no other reason.  I wish he’d had a better director to frame a better narrative for the performance, but the overall film is still very much worth seeing.

7.5/10


The Darkest Hour Poster

19 thoughts on “Movie Review: Darkest Hour (2017) “We Shall Never Surrender””

  1. You’re being charitable about Joe Wright. When my favorite film of a director’s is a faithful Jane Austin adaptation, I know that something is off. I am astonished that the director of Pan was allowed to work again, and also saddened, because it sounds like a better director would have made for a better film. If you are right about this movie, and Oldman’s performance, a chance for a really good document was missed.

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    1. Hey Peter, I would say Joe Wright is overall a fantastic director. I understand you may not like his style and choices but that doesn’t make him a bad director; more that his particular way of telling a story does not gel with your taste.

      Filmmaking is incredible difficult to get right and I would say that Atonement and Hanna and Pride & Prejudice are terrific films from a very interesting filmmaker. Of course, blogging and reviews are all about opinions, yet sometimes it’s important to divorce whether you like something from whether something or someone is “bad”. E.g. I could not stand ‘Mother’ by Darren Aronofsky but recognised it was the work of a fine director, but just not to my taste.

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      1. Paul, I consider all art to be a collaboration between the artist and his audience. Partly that means that works of art are fluid, capable of taking on forms that even the artist did not understand were possible. But it also really hammers home the subjectivity of words like “good” and “bad.”

        Anything I say is just my opinion. I always assume that people know that. Maybe I shouldn’t assume; this is the internet, home of the People Who Never Experience Doubt. But I experience doubt all the time.

        I’m sure that Mother is a work of art from a filmmaking perspective, but I’m also sure I would hate it, like you, so I stayed away. I’ve disliked all of Aronofsky’s films that I’ve seen, but in terms of quality they are very hit or miss IMO. For example Black Swan and Pi are beautifully constructed, but to me the direction of Noah has a generic Hollywood feel (it’s the way that the script treats the subject matter that makes it completely gonzo). I suppose that’s a consequence of big budget filmmaking. It’s hard for a filmmaker to exert control over a gargantuan production and make to feel like it was the work of an auteur. I do admire Aronofsky for continually being in high-wire-act mode, though it sounds like with Mother he took things way too far.

        Thank you for your comment. If I sound that opinionated, I will try to temper.

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      2. I’m surprised he found work again…entirely because of the debacle that was Pan. I’m talking pirates singing Nirvana songs in Neverland, and fairies getting mowed down with flamethrowers. A lot of money was spent by WB on what they thought was going to be a really lucrative franchise.

        Of course I’m not actually surprised that he found work again. I would be surprised if they gave him another big budget extravaganza.

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      3. I visited your blog just now, read a few of your critiques. Great stuff! I especially like the one-sentence reviews. I’m going to go back when I have more time.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. My European correspondent. Winston’s brilliance was in rallying the British people for what they would face and seeming to be one of them going through it with them. It was a civilian/military whole country effort that survived the Blitz and survived until we got off our butts to come help.

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  2. Just saw it. I liked it more than you did, probably a lot more. It’s not a masterpiece by any means, and it won’t go down as a classic, unless that happens solely through Oldman’s wonderful performance. But the movie did perfectly illuminate its narrow focus. Painted a fascinating portrait of a fascinating historical figure, showed him as a human being, the stress he was under, the despair. Elegantly showed us the politics and had me on the edge of my seat the whole time, even though I knew exactly what was going to happen before it was shown. The stakes were so high at this juncture in history that you sit up and take notice. In short, I think I loved this film because of the subject matter, not the craft. Not the the craft was bad, the craft was excellent, right down to the least-distracting elaborate make-up job I have ever seen in a biographical drama of this sort.

    I loved the fanciful scene on the subway. Perfect example of why movies are magical.

    Also I thought it was amazing that it did not feel overshadowed by the honest to God masterpiece that was Dunkirk, even though Darkest Hour doesn’t hold a candle. Just goes to show that sometimes a compelling story is enough, IF you stick to the story.

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    1. The subway scene particularly irked me, not because Churchill wasn’t a champion of the people, but it was so contrived. Plus Churchill for all his good qualities was a racist and to have him being glorified by being so folksy with a black man on the tube that he wouldn’t have given the time of day to is a distortion of history. I don’t think Dunkirk overshadows it because they’re not even remotely similar films nor is it within spitting range of Dunkirk’s quality. It’s an Oldman vehicle for a performance that to me lacked the power of a movie that may end up being a Best Picture nominee.

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      1. Point taken about the racist part, but do you know why it did not bother me? Much? If you ever watch the scene again pay attention to Oldman’s performance when he addresses that guy the first time. I swear Churchill is drumming it up at that point. Later he acts folksy with the guy, but he’s got things on his mind, to put it mildly, and a specific purpose for being there. The subtlety of Oldman’s performance saves that part of the film.

        Better of course that that guy had not been in there. I do not think the film had to address Churchill’s every shortcoming, but the prescence of the guy on the subway kind of throws an elephant in the room into our faces, while totally glossing it over.

        The way that Churchill is temporarily “lost” when he goes into the subway is a way of telling the audience that we are stepping outside of history for a few minutes. I thought it was clear that it was fanciful. It was fine.

        I can’t see a best picture nod. Like I said, great story well told, but the story counts for more than the telling. Oldman deserves a win, but he shot himself in the foot when he decided to talk to Rolling Stone a few years back.

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