Joe Wright is a director who specializes in period kitsch. His 2005 version of “Pride & Prejudice” is a well-defined dollop of cinematic tough love as experienced through Jane Austen’s emotional turbulence of class struggles.
“Atonement” (2007) found Wright following his muse Keira Knightly through the war-torn romantic terrain of Ian McEwan’s novel with emotional grace notes played in ringing succession. The keen-eyed filmmaker maxed out with his visually embellished adaptation of Anna Karenina, once again featuring Keira Knightley, this time as the title character of Tolstoy’s epic love story.
However deft Joe Wright clearly is with clearing his theatrical space for actors to deliver finely crafted performances in “Darkest Hour,” the filmmaker is hamstrung to liberate the film from screenwriter Anthony McCarten’s staid text and dull plotting. There is no question that Gary Oldman’s performance as Winston Churchill is a portrayal for the ages. As well, Kristin Scott Thomas is purely grounded as Churchill’s wife Clemmie. Ben Mendelsohn’s King George VI casts a long shadow that few living politicians could pretend to fill.
The problems with this dull, drawn-out film announce themselves early on through Dario Marianelli’s bombastic musical score that attempts to mask narrative shifts that clash rather than mesh with the aural hamburger-helper. The story takes place over a one-month period during May of 1940, when Winston Churchill took over as Britain’s Prime Minister at a time when Germany was winning World War II. For as unpopular as Churchill was at the time, he put his head down and got to work, or so the story goes.
"Darkest Hour" gets overwrought and fussy regarding Churchill’s mistreatment of his youthful secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), who has to develop much thicker skin if she is to endure the demands of taking dictation from the head of the British Empire. We accept the sub-plot ruse in the beginning, but it runs threadbare by the time Churchill is pressured toward engaging in peace talks with Hitler.
References to Dunkirk come across as gratuitous considering that awful film’s recent engagement to a plethora of fawning critics who seem to have never seen a competent war film in their lives. There should be a moratorium on World War II films considering that era's disconnected irrelevance to our drone-dominated modern warfare, and the fact of Cinema's already mile-high coverage of World War II.
When Oldman’s Churchill boards a London subway to get a feel for the will of the people, it’s clear that the filmmakers have sunk to a new basement level of pandering to their audience. The scene works in spite of itself, but it nonetheless represents an unforgivable sin of sewing up a mess of a movie with a flurry of hand-stitching. “Darkest Hour” is a brief, and presumably misleading, biopic aimed more at winning awards for acting than in connecting our modern political problems with those of the past. Here is a film to sip tea over, rather than watch with any sense of urgency or relevance beyond the endearing performances of its cast.
Rated PG-13. 125 mins.
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