Whilst it’s fashionable to complain about swarming multitudes of superhero films infesting multiplexes like Day Glo insects, there is actually another genre of film holding our silver screens to ransom that I find to be even more pervasive and risible: the achingly mannered prestige biopic. The King’s Speech set the mold for this kind of hack hagiography that smooths over any rough edges in the pursuit of the golden formula that keeps the producers of turgid work like Victoria & Abdul or The Imitation Game in fur coats and Rolexes.
There’s nothing wrong with mining the past for dramatic inspiration, but like so many of its kind, Darkest Hour offers nothing new to say about the life of Winston Churchill beyond the bland and obvious. Director Joe Wright (who has never been one to go for a simple camera angle when he could use seven unusual ones instead) succeeds in adding some visual flair, but he’s fighting a losing battle against the film’s primary marketing point: the casting of a rubber-faced Gary Oldman as the wartime leader. Struggling to emote beneath a prosthetic death mask, all of the acting is diffused by the ‘uncanny valley’ effect of the prosthetics. On top of giving Oldman an unnecessary mountain to climb (are audiences so unimaginative that unless Oldman looked identical to Churchill they’d be confused about who he was supposed to be playing?) the entire enterprise reeks of Oscar-bait.
It’s fitting then that the pleasures of the film are plastic, too, as Wright offers his trademark visual similes to the story of Churchill’s first month as prime minister, leading up to the mass evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk. (The latter also figures in Wright’s second feature, Atonement, and, of course, in this year’s terrific, maxi-minimalist Dunkirk.)
Set in May and early June of 1940, Darkest Hour begins with the downfall of Churchill’s predecessor, the terminally ill Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), remembered today for his attempted appeasement of Hitler. Reluctantly appointed to the premiership by King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn, one of the films few genuine bright spots), Churchill begins putting together his cabinet, making sure to include both Chamberlain and the former Prime Minister’s close friend and presumed successor, Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane). While the vilified Chamberlain gets an unusually sympathetic portrayal in Darkest Hour, Halifax gets handed the role of scheming aristocratic villain, an interesting choice considering that Churchill wasn’t exactly a working class hero. As the Nazis are kept off camera, it would seem that the House Of Lords are the next best thing as villains go.
Wright’s staging is often eye-catching, guaranteeing that the film remains unflaggingly watchable even in its plodding stretches. But it never transcends the obvious: Churchill is a performer, politics is theater, the powerful can feel isolated, etc. And while Oldman is barely recognizable in Darkest Hour, his Churchill is well-worn: the same funny, bullheaded, difficult orator familiar from half a dozen other Churchill biopics and from the prime minister’s own self-curated public and political persona.
Ultimately, the film’s heightened artificiality betrays its simplistic hero worship. The moment is a fanciful, dramatically obscene sequence in which Churchill escapes his chauffeured state car and decides to ride the Tube for the first time in his life, surrounded by ordinary commuters, who let him know what they think about the Nazis and stop short of taking turns to sit on his knee. It’s the sort of stuff that would make Frank Capra retch. (Screenwriter Anthony McCarten also wrote the mawkish Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory Of Everything; this is the scene where it really shows.) Perhaps someday we’ll get a warts-and-all portrait that doesn’t pretend as if the only bad thing that Britain’s wartime Prime Minister ever did was make his secretaries cry. Because what can a movie really say about the tough decisions and responsibilities of leadership, superficially a theme of Darkest Hour, if it refuses to be tough on leaders?