Joe Wright's drama features a transformative turn by the excellent Gary Oldman as Churchill; unfortunately, the limited-scope biopic doesn't have much more in its arsenal than that. The cast of Darkest Hour is excellent, but the inner workings and relationships of the people they play are unexplored, giving the actors little chance to shine. The film recounts a key moment in British, European, and world history: Churchill's choice to resist the superior Axis forces to the end, rather than surrender (expressed in his famous "We shall fight" speech). But instead of filling the film with tension and desperation, Wright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything) focus on destructive political struggles. Keeping the focus on the back-and-forth in Parliament and the king's slowly won approval distances viewers from the actual stakes. It feels as if the movie is about Churchill's political life, rather than the survival of the British civilization and its people. For instance, the desperate, Hail Mary evacuation of Dunkirk is a key plot point ... but it's represented in the film by gentlemanly politicians civilly (mostly) debating the options. It's perhaps an unfair comparison, but Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk showed just how gripping that story could be. Not that Darkest Hour should have been a war film, but the audience does need to feel the weight that's bowing Churchill's back, not just be told about it.
The film commits the familiar sin of relating history almost exclusively through the mouths of the powerful. There's Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), upon whom history hasn't smiled; lesser-known Viscount Halifax (the always-great Stephen Dillane); and King George VI himself (Emmy winner Ben Mendelsohn). There's a nice secretary (Lily James), but her story isn't explored, and the way her relationship with Churchill is portrayed here pales in comparison to a parallel arc between another secretary and Churchill in Netflix's The Crown. It's only toward the end of Darkest Hour that we're reminded there are actual people among the "British people." In what will surely become the movie's signature scene, Churchill unexpectedly consults/manipulates average citizens on the dire question facing the nation. It's only then that we're reminded what stands to be lost, destroyed, killed. As for Oldman, he's dependably watchable. (Read: He's less fun to watch than you'd expect.) The script simply doesn't help him; Churchill's famed wit is barely present. Bottom line? Darkest Hour is a patriotic, if too genteel, representation of the events leading to one of the most famous speeches of the 20th century.