3/10 Set in World War II and marketed on the strength of a respected star with an empty mantel, Darkest Hour is exactly the kind of movie that’s going extinct as the Academy focuses more on social justice and diversity and its Greatest Generation holdovers start to die out.
Thank everything that’s holy for that.
Darkest Hour relates the first month of prime minister Winston Churchill’s (Gary Oldman) government, formed as the British were being beaten out of France by Nazi Germany in the spring of 1940. Churchill came to power replacing Conservative Party leader Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), who was ousted for his handling of the war, as an equally unpopular compromise from both the conservative and labour parties. In the film, Chamberlain and foreign secretary Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), Chamberlain’s first choice for the position, conspire to undermine Churchill and make peace with the Nazis, which amplifies Churchill’s silent uncertainty that Germany can be beaten. The tensions culminate into the Miracle of Dunkirk, which you might have heard of elsewhere.
I was not even slightly excited to see Darkest Hour. It looked like everything wrong with awards season Hollywood, and that’s exactly what it is. It’s this calculated thing designed to appeal to as many niche Oscar categories as possible that tries to convince you it’s an organic, heartfelt movie. It’s sure to get a lot of attention from the make-up artist and set designer crowd, and it really is beautifully framed, but it’s a stilted, ingenuine, Oscary beauty. Artsy-fartsy, but with that joyless ’40s color pallet and aesthetic. It’s also got that Wikipedia article-as-dialogue problem a lot of the lazier biopics have.
It distinctly reminds me of Barry Lyndon, Stanley Kubrick’s heavily overshadowed 1975 film. It’s an incredibly boring period film that’s hailed as a masterpiece for its epic scale and meticulous framing and detail.
But a movie needs more than a setting. A setting is just a place for a story to happen, and I’m not sure Darkest Hour even has one of those. Churchill has no arc at all in the film, and barely any characterization. All the exciting war stuff happens off-screen. Most of the tension is made-up or rumor based at best. The most story it has through most of the runtime is a fistful of really obvious isolation shots of Churchill.
There should be more World War I movies. There are so many about World War II, and one of the few things Darkest Hour does well is it addresses how the scars of the first war helped allow Hitler to get as far as he did — Europe was so traumatized that even with Germany invading its neighbors and the humanitarian crisis that would become the Holocaust, nobody wanted to go back to war. Churchill is chastised in this very movie for his leadership of the Gallipoli Campaign, an attempt to invade the Ottoman’s Gallipoli Peninsula that cost hundreds of thousands of lives and got nowhere — as soon as he starts making military decisions, someone brings it up to question his judgment.
These underlying fears, as well as the unique pride of the British Empire, inform almost everything about this movie but are absent from pop culture. It would have been great to see something more focused on developing those internal tensions.
It is truly unfortunate that Darkest Hour is the second movie in six months to address the Dunkirk Evacuation, especially when the first was such a triumph. It’s not a good sister film to Dunkirk, but a wonderful one to The King’s Speech. Both are overlong, self-aggrandizing talkies that rely on the specific nostalgia of the Academy and will only end up taking attention away from more deserving films.
Post-Weinstein blunder: On multiple occasions, Churchill casually exposes himself to his secretary, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), either running out of the bathroom without warning or getting out of bed in such a way that his dick flops out. It’s played for laughs, but a very bad look at the moment.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.