Joe Wright’s Churchill chamber piece ‘Darkest Hour’ huffs, puffs before surrendering to tepid convention

Jack English / Focus Features/Courtesy

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Grade: 2.5/5.0

And just like clockwork, the handsomely crafted biopic requisite for the annual awards conversation has come barreling into arthouses once again. This year’s offering is “Darkest Hour,” boasting romantically foggy visuals and gorgeous pageantry, with a typically transformative performance by Gary Oldman in the role of Winston Churchill as its crown jewel.

All of these are rather typical hallmarks of the average “honor the man” movie, yet the film also aspires to be something that’s less celebratory and more intriguing than most of its ilk: a character study. That “Darkest Hour” can’t quite find the balance between probing its subject’s psychology and racking up chamber-piece tension ultimately sends its drama into a spiral, but its handsome furnishings and genuinely terrific ensemble at least keep it from spoiling entirely.

Kicking off with archival footage of World War II, the film doesn’t waste time in instilling an overwhelming sense of urgency. The Nazis are on the brink of taking France, British soldiers are being cornered at Dunkirk, and the current prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, has lost the confidence of his government, leaving the country without a clear leader. A fully successful replacement would have to inspire the public, corral the panicked parties and win the favor of the king (Ben Mendelsohn). Everyone seems to agree there’s only one man for the job, though the mere transition of power becomes a trial of its own.

Darkest Hour” represents a rebound of sorts for director Joe Wright, sending him back to the wartime woes of his breakout film “Atonement” after his 2015 franchise nonstarter “Pan.” He seems to be much more comfortable curating well-worn period dressing than pioneering his own blockbuster aesthetic, and here he revels in the pleasures of British civility. A champagne bottle pops in close-up, each breakfast in bed is more scrumptious than the last, and the clickety-clack of secretaries hammering on typewriters provides a second soundtrack that’s as pulse-pounding and thunderous as Dario Marianelli’s score.

The film is at its most electric in its opening minutes, before its subject is even introduced. Churchill is announced as a man whose reputation precedes him, shrouded in rumors and whispers, not unlike Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly in “The Devil Wears Prada.” It’s an engrossing shtick, though not a sustainable one should the subject come to be the film’s anchor. The biggest problem of “Darkest Hour” is that it can’t shake Churchill’s reputation, sprinkling across silly tics such as illegible last minute notes on a speech or a strict demand for double-spaced papers. Whenever it attempts to pull its subject down to Earth, a scene later it will elevate him to incomprehensible genius. “The Devil Wears Prada” works because its protagonist is not Miranda Priestly, but rather Anne Hathaway as her fresh-faced new hire. The character most akin to Hathaway’s here is Churchill’s personal secretary Elizabeth (Lily James); while their relationship stands as a potential emotional backbone, it never quite emerges from the story’s peripheries.

DARKEST HOUR

Jack English / Focus Features / Courtesy

Oldman’s impressive work humanizing his plethora of prosthetics is largely left adrift. It’s not a particularly revolutionary performance, but there are enough interesting moments when his bulldog demeanor crumples into self-doubt that are deserving of a better narrative framework. Too frequently, the film frames Churchill like yet another period ornament, largely keeping him at a distance from the camera and, thus, restricting the audience’s understanding of the details of his proficiency. It’s somewhat astounding that the audience can watch this man huff and puff for more than two hours and still emerge from the film without a full understanding of the reasoning behind, nor the full consequences of, the decisions he made.

After a while, the steadfast pace is hindered by its own inertia. Nearly every scene is conveyed with unwavering gravitas; the rising tension gradually flattens to a plateau. If something is always firing on about five-eighths of its cylinders, it’ll come to never surprise you. What began so rousingly just begins to spin its wheels toward a foregone conclusion—that famous “we will never surrender” speech, from which Churchill exits the chamber like a rock star, silhouetted, surrounded by flying handkerchiefs.

That such an initially engrossing film would sink to such shamelessly familiar commemoration by its conclusion is a letdown, though not a particularly remarkable one. After all, this type of boilerplate prestige picture comes out every year in late autumn. For what it’s worth, “Darkest Hour” is a comparatively painless enterprise, and it’s a good deal more interesting to look at than most of its peers.

Contact Jackson Murphy at [email protected].