‘Darkest Hour’ review: Visually lush, emotionally flat

The first time we hear of Winston Churchill in Jon Wright’s Darkest Hour, it is during a rather adversarial caucus for the removal of Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) as prime minister of Britain. In the sidelines, his absence from the meeting was said to be due to him “ensuring his fingerprints are not on the murder weapon.”

Humanizing Churchill

The first time we see Winston Churchill (played by Gary Oldman, who is unsurprisingly fantastic even beneath the very heavy makeup), he is in bed, mumbling phrases for his new stenographer (Lily James) to hurriedly type.

PREPARATION. Winston Churchill prepares to become Britain's Prime Minister as World War II begins.

PREPARATION. Winston Churchill prepares to become Britain's Prime Minister as World War II begins.

This doesn’t look like a man ready to lead his cornered country into a war against one of history’s most deranged dictators. Churchill is at first a humorous presence, a lumbering mass stuck in between his breakfast and beddings, an image of privilege and aristocracy. In a split second, he lashes at his newly minted assistant who, though at first amused seeing the future prime minister in his bedroom garb jump out of bed, scaredly runs out of the room, ready to give up.

Wright’s task of humanizing one of Britain’s foremost leaders is a difficult one for the simple reason that it has been done so many times before.

What the director of films like Pride and Prejudice (2005) and Atonement (2007) adds to the crowd is a compelling visual elegance. Each frame of Darkest Hour is precisely composed, with just the right amount of light and shadow to evoke a sense of uncertainty that is supposedly prescient during those days. Each camera movement is graceful. Even the scenes of destruction are rendered like events of terrible beauty. It is almost impossible not to get hypnotized by the film’s collection of images.

 

RESPONSIBILITY. Winston Churchill makes a point, saying he takes full responsibility for the decisions as England is bombed by the Nazis.

RESPONSIBILITY. Winston Churchill makes a point, saying he takes full responsibility for the decisions as England is bombed by the Nazis.

 

Close to nothing

Sadly, there really isn’t much else.

The screenplay by Anthony McCarten ambitions to present Churchill as a political underdog – a mostly disagreeable person whose quick wit and stubbornness seem to be his most disarming virtues. The film is busy detailing Britain’s stormy and treacherous political weather, turning Churchill’s pro-peace opponents into devious and conspiring villains in the hopes of etching some sort of nobility to the prime minister’s scenes of mouthing speeches for his stenographer to transcribe.

CRUCIAL DECISION. Winston Churchill gives the peace sign during a meeting at the House. Photo from Facebook/Darkest Hour

CRUCIAL DECISION. Winston Churchill gives the peace sign during a meeting at the House.

Photo from Facebook/Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour seems to be too afraid to define Churchill’s ambition, to depict the leader’s clever machinations in the attempt to fulfill his dream of becoming prime minister. While Wright was able to flesh out the pains and aches of a man tasked to lead a country in a war they may most likely lose, he does so with more than a little help from hackneyed conceits such as when Churchill suddenly finds himself in the subway to get the pulse of the people. At the same time, the film has so conveniently left out what goes inside the walls of government offices. 

All of those alluringly composed scenes and narrative cheats mean close to nothing. They have little emotional impact, very little effect in shaping the national leader into a character who is beyond the rousing speeches.

Female support

SUPPORTIVE WIFE. Kristin Scott Thomas plays Churchill's wife Clementine.

SUPPORTIVE WIFE. Kristin Scott Thomas plays Churchill's wife Clementine.

The film recruits female supports – the fictional stenographer and Churchill’s steadfast wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) – only to add heft to the man’s mercurial attitudes, which feel oddly tacked on.

In Darkest Hour, women do make the man. Without the film’s female characters, all of whom are woefully placed in the background, the film’s Churchill would have been an undeniable bore. –Rappler.com

 

Francis Joseph Cruz litigates for a living and writes about cinema for fun. The first Filipino movie he saw in the theaters was Carlo J. Caparas' Tirad Pass. Since then, he's been on a mission to find better memories with Philippine cinema.