When British director Joe Wright made his feature debut back in 2005 with Pride and Prejudice, he showed he had something new to offer to period dramas. His shots were elegant tableaus, approached from unconventional angels, and the once tired genre felt fresh once again. With his next feature, Atonement, he improved on his craft, taking it to another level of cinematic inventiveness with Anna Karenina.
Then there was Pan: a skittish pantomime piece, proving to be a baffling marriage of Steam Punk and regional panto. Thankfully his latest film, Darkest Hour, has more in common with the stylistic choices of his earlier work, met with a compelling lead and supporting cast, in what is an elegantly crafted biopic, that treads over all too familiar territory. Depicting the earliest months of WWII, the drama deals with Winston Churchill’s rise to the position of Prime Minister and his ‘darkest hour,’ when he decides to take the country to war with Hitler’s Nazi Germany, abandoning Atlee’s policy of appeasement.
Behind several inches of prosthetic jowls (masterfully designed by Kazuhiro Tsuji) is Gary Oldman. The transformation is impressive, thankfully well away from the hilarity of J. Edgar Hoover or the blancmange neck-waddle of Hitchcock. Oldman is an odd, but as it turns out excellent, choice of actor, capable of supplying the necessary jocular charms of the Pol Roger swilling aristo with the tenacious war hero.
Throughout the film, we hang off the Churchill’s shoulder as he stalks the corridors of power. We see him verbally fencing with his political rival Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) in Parliament, and navigate his uneasy relationship with George VI (an oddly cast Ben Mendelsohn) at Buckingham Palace. We then retreat to homelier moments where he barks at his (thinly written) secretary Elizabeth (Lily James), and share a hug with his wife, Clemmie (Kristen Scott-Thomas, another thinly-written female character) and his brood of children.
All of this adds up to an attempt by Wright, and his writer Anthony McCarten, to show Churchill as a father, husband, and leader, yet some guises ring more authentic than others. While we feel for him when he’s stalked by the black dog of depression, and rally as he valiantly fends off rivals with Urquhart-like skill, only then to stand with jaw-dropping admiration as Oldman delivers well-worn lines about fighting jack-booted Jerries on the beaches with impressive new vigour.
More than John Lithgow’s performance in The Crown or Brian Cox in Churchill (the more historically accurate to date), Oldman’s is the most enjoyable, even if it is populist, rendition in recent years. Although regarding capturing the man behind the legend, it doesn’t touch HBO’s hugely enjoyable The Gathering Storm with Albert Finney, that covers much of the same ground.
Wright is back on track after the slip-up of Pan, yet some of that visual flair that was present in Atonement and Anna Karenina is missing. While there is much to enjoy, a more personal stamp from the director would have meant Darkest Hour could have been more than a well-orchestrated biopic of a figure has been given enough cinematic treatment for the present time.
Joseph Walsh | @JosephDAWalsh