Darkest Hour, in a way, is the other end of the story that Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk tells. While that film steers clear of political machinations, Darkest Hour indulges in them, specifically in those of Winston Churchill’s early days as Prime Minister while he orchestrates the evacuation at Dunkirk.
Thus, with such a story, the film had the potential to amount to not much more than typical British TV movie-esque extravagance. But Darkest Hour rises above, mostly due to Gary Oldman’s unbelievable transformation, yet also because of Joe Wright’s vivid, firmly controlled direction.
There’s an energy behind each frame that nearly mirrors the physical energy of Oldman’s performance. Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography is particularly striking in how it lights interiors. Much of the film takes place in halls and chambers, and there’s a persistent haze that’s as equally eerie as it is strangely invigorating. Delbonnel and Wright also venture into the slightly experimental, shooting long shots of the interiors of rooms with complete darkness outlining the room’s edges, and often framing Oldman’s face in enclosed boxes to mirror the trapped nature of Churchill’s position.
When such visual splendor combines with perfectly paced editing and Dario Marianelli’s stirring, pulsing score, Darkest Hour is electric.
There are moments, however, when the film veers into excessiveness. Churchill, at least this film’s version of him, is a man of far too many words, and focusing so often on his speeches — there are roughly seven or eight speeches made by Churchill throughout Darkest Hour — and on Churchill’s character itself causes the narrative’s energy to waver. To be fair, pulling off such a balance of energy is incredibly difficult, but the film does end up, in a way, adopting the faults of Churchill in its own structure.
But the film is never without the raw power of Gary Oldman, who disappears into the role in every way, literal and mental. We can see a precise, specific and consistent physicality in the way that Oldman delivers dialogue, in his physical interactions with both space and people and in his command of the frame as he marches across it. It’s a towering performance, quite literally at times when the film shoots him from a low angle, and one of the best of the year. Without it, or one like it, Darkest Hour would’ve likely been a dull two hours.
Featured image via Focus Features.