The historical drama The Darkest Hour is basically a retelling of events previously depicted in director Christopher Nolan’s smashing success from last summer Dunkirk, and the end result is roughly the same. Which is to say, not entirely successful. Joe Wright (Atonement) directs from a script by Anthony McCarten and this film succeeds where Dunkirk failed (in the fleshing out of characters) and fails where Dunkirk succeeded­—in the cinematic interpretation of the material.

The Darkest Hour contains lots of scenes of talking heads that eventually wear out their welcome as British Prime Minister frets about what to do when the allied forces find themselves stranded on the shores of Dunkirk as they attempt to fend off the onslaught of the Nazi regime. Perhaps if these two scripts had been meshed into one then we might have had a powder keg of a film. As it stands The Darkest Hour is good but not great and succeeds as well as it does mostly as a result of its credible cast and, especially, its standout central performance.

Gary Oldman is certainly not the first actor who would come to mind when casting a WWII drama with Winston Churchill at its center. And yet, he delivers the goods. He’s virtually unrecognizable as the British Prime Minister by being encased in what is referred to by some as a fat suit. He’s got the voice and mannerisms down pat as well and it’s amazing to watch him at work much in the same way it was a joy to watch him in years gone by portraying such public figures as Lee Harvey Oswald, Sid Vicious and Beethoven. He’s a great actor to be sure and there’s no arguing that The Darkest Hour rests and falls on his shoulders. He’s the whole show and without him this is the kind of film that wouldn’t even receive a mention come awards time, although Kristen Scott Thomas brings some notable competitive edge in her performance as Churchill’s wife.

Unfortunately, the film’s script never reaches the dizzying heights of Oldman’s performance. It’s interesting, for a while at least, to watch Churchill go back and forth as to whether he should negotiate with Hitler or take another approach to liberating the allied forces stranded on the beach. Unfortunately, there’s only so much drama that the filmmakers can get out of that scenario and the film eventually buckles under the weight of the overall stodgy feel. Oldman’s performance is good but it can never quite mask the fact that The Darkest Hour is a film tailor made to court the Oscar vote as much as anything else.

This movie is playing in Charlotte at press time.
Scott-Thomas & Oldman in ‘Darkest Hour’

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