The events of Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of Britain’s troops from Dunkirk, were told on-screen across land, air and sea last year. Now the story is revisited once again in Churchill biopic drama Darkest Hour, directed by Joe Wright. As Nazi Germany continued to invade Western Europe, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain loses control of his cabinet and is forced to resign from his position. Despite severe doubts from his party, Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) is reluctantly appointed as his predecessor. With the support of his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) and secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), he endeavours to guide the nation through World War II.
Though the narrative unfolds through what was undoubtedly one of Britain’s most harrowing periods, this movie strangely left me emotionally detached. The tone has a lingering whiff of upper-class superiority and though the script may work on a history lesson level, it is often dull and never entertaining. Churchill’s depiction comes across as almost parodic in its pomposity as he bundles around in a pink housecoat drinking whisky and smoking his signature cigars. There are cheap attempts at humour which feel misplaced given the seriousness of the threat the country was facing at the time, and there’s a scene at the London Underground which is utterly bewildering in its preposterousness.
As is the norm with biographical film structures, an arc is forged to give the character a transformative journey. Churchill moves swiftly from cantankerous git into loveable old rogue, via his growing friendship with Layton, but it all feels incredibly manufactured in its execution. Underneath all the chubby prosthetics, Gary Oldman does manage to turn what initially comes across as an impersonation into quite an impressive performance when the iconic speeches inevitably come into play. He works well with Scott Thomas who is reliably effective as his doting wife Clementine, and with the ever-excellent Ben Mendelsohn who portrays King George VI, a role that is refreshingly different from his usual parts.
Known for directing historical dramas such as Atonement and Anna Karenina, Wright is unarguably well versed in the genre but relies too heavily on the performances this time around to save what is sadly sub-par storytelling. As awards bait fodder, it is likely to achieve a V for Victory, particularly in the acting categories, but overall, it fails to leave the emotional, nation-rallying impact it so desperately strives for.