Release Date: December 8, 2017
Director: Joe Wright
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 125 minutes
Joe Wright used to be an interesting director. He began his feature directorial career with Pride and Prejudice, redefining the Victorian drama with a new, sweaty, sensuous style, which he continued in both Atonement and Anna Karenina. Even his less successful films Hanna and the divisive Pan seemed to be trying to do something new, something exciting, something interesting.
That is what makes Wright’s latest outing, Darkest Hour, such a disappointment. It’s not that the film is bad. It has respectable performances and excellent production values; it’s only that I couldn’t distinguish its style from that of Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) or Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game), British directors who have never shown the personality that Wright once had.
Darkest Hour could serve as a sequel to Hooper’s film, a prequel to Tyldum’s and a companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. It recounts events from the resignation of Neville Chamberlain to the end of the Dunkirk evacuation as Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) tries to rally the support of the British crown, government and people in the fight against Hitler.
Who stands in his way? His immediate predecessor, Chamberlaine (Ronald Pickup), and would-be successor, Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), who both favor peace talks and further appeasement. Along for the ride are Churchill’s wife, Clementine (Kristen Scott Thomas); King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn); and Churchill’s secretary, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James).
The film runs just over two hours, but as each scene progresses, it is hard to discern where in the film you are. Every 15 minutes or so, Oldman gives a rabble-rousing speech with almost no tonal difference between those in the first half and those in the second.
The whole film feels designed to be on the Oscar reel for Gary Oldman’s best actor nomination, with a few scenes picked out for Scott Thomas in the supporting actress category and maybe even Stephen Dillane for supporting actor. Who knows? Maybe this will end up in déjà vu with the film getting all the Oscar nominations normally awarded to that British movie every year.
Unfortunately, this film is where I finally noticed that the jig was up a long time ago. When you already have the heartwarming Their Finest and the compelling Dunkirk to come out this year, this by-the-numbers World War 2 movie simply feels inadequate for our times.
I need more than a subway train’s worth of Brits telling me to have courage against fascism in this world. And for a final nail in the coffin of this mediocrity, all I could think about as Oldman delivered the “we shall fight on the beaches” speech was how much more powerful Fionn Whitehead’s rendition of the same was in Dunkirk.