Darkest Hour – A Review

Thanks to being over the cap of vacation days that I could carry into the new year, I was able to take off a lot of the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Typically I take very little time off at the holidays – my family is all local and I’d rather cover for other people who have kids or have to travel. But this year, I needed a goddamn break, so I seized the opportunity to indulge in a little staycation that involved a lot of Netflix and trips to the movie theater. It was kind of heavenly and something that I rarely do; usually if I’m out of the office I’m traveling, but there is something to be said for spending some quality time at home.  I think I’ve seen more movies in the theater in December than I had the rest of the year, which is a sad indication of what my 2017 looked like. I would have gone to the multiplex even more if it wasn’t so frigid in Upstate New York; on more than one occasion I had every intention of going to the movies, stepped outside, said “Nope” and went back inside to the warm confines of my apartment.

One of the movies that I faced the subzero temperatures to see was Darkest Hour – a movie that I admittedly wasn’t too jazzed to see. If it didn’t have Oscar buzz, I would have skipped it completely, but since I am once again making my quixotic attempt to see every Oscar nominated movie in every category I had no choice. I bundled up and fought for a seat in a surprisingly overcrowded theater to watch Gary Oldman portray Winston Churchill.

Part of the reason that I was kind of “meh” about going to see Darkest Hour was that I definitely have fatigue from movies that focus on World War II, especially in this political climate when I have to endure Nazi-related nonsense on a regular basis. I admitted to my guy friends this weekend that I thought Saving Private Ryan was overrated and they practically ran me out of the bar. Having watched The Crown I also wasn’t too jazzed to see yet another portrayal of Winston Churchill. I’m certainly not saying that John Lithgow gave the end-all, be-all depiction of Churchill, but his personality and this time period are well-tread – especially in an Oscar season that also features Dunkirk as a contender (which is also referenced in Darkest Hour). In short, Darkest Hour potentially was going to feel like homework.

Darkest Hour examines the period of time just prior to Churchill’s appointment as prime minister and his early days in office when he is faced with Hitler’s march across Europe and the deliberations within Churchill’s advisors. Churchill was not necessarily the popular choice for prime minister and assembles a war cabinet that is similar to Lincoln’s team of rivals that includes his predecessor Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), both of whom support negotiating peace with Hitler. Darkest Hour shows Churchill’s transformation to the leader that he is revered for and shows the behind-the-scenes political maneuvering that was unfolding as the treat of a German invasion was looming.

Given my apathy about seeing Darkest Hour, it’s probably not surprising that I wasn’t completely bowled over by it. It is definitely a well-acted film – Oldman is likely the frontrunner for Best Actor – and it’s well-made, but it never totally won me over and captured my full attention. I found some parts of it a bit boring and an Englishman who mumbles is not always easy to understand (there were a few times Closed Captioning would have come in handy). Oldman does disappear into the role quite nicely, though to be honest, I’d have been hard pressed to describe what Oldman looks or sounds like when he’s not in character.  I was pretty psyched to see Ben Mendelsohn turn up as King George VI, and Kristin Scott Thomas was a welcome addition as Clementine Churchill. Lily James does the most she can with the relatively thankless role of Churchill’s typist. The supporting performances aren’t really the point; Darkest Hour is all about giving Oldman a chance to shine and his performance does a lot to overcome some of the plotting and writing deficiencies. Still, even Oldman can’t fix everything and while I will not be surprised if he takes home an Academy Award, one stellar performance does not always make a great movie.

Darkest Hour is potentially worth seeing for Gary Oldman’s tour de force performance, but I can’t say that I really enjoyed it. If you don’t know much about this time period in Great Britain, the film does provide a very accessible and simple overview of the early days of Churchill’s tenure as prime minister. But there isn’t a lot of new info here for those who are already well-informed. My issues with Darkest Hour could have more to do with my own personal preferences than the film itself. It may be fairer to file this under “not for me” and move on.

Darkest Hour is currently in theaters.

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