The 400-Word Review: Darkest Hour

By Sean Collier

December 12, 2017

That's a lot of emotion from the British!

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There are two angles to take when evaluating Darkest Hour, the drama from Joe Wright.

Shall we dive in on the Dunkirk companion piece angle?

Darkest Hour isn’t really a biopic of Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman), although its first act is about the leader’s ascension to power. Rather, it is a depiction of Churchill’s deliberate plotting of a path to war; facing national powers too timid to take on the Germans, Churchill used patriotic sentiment, rhetoric, calculated delay and old-fashioned obstinance to push the political mood towards an imperative to stop Hitler. The matter at hand, though, was the plight of British troops on the beaches of Dunkirk, in France.

Which, of course, we heard a good bit about earlier this year.

It is interesting to see the geopolitical side of this story, since Christopher Nolan’s film focused so directly on the personal and human. Dallying in Parliament would’ve derailed Dunkirk utterly, but watching Darkest Hour does feel like a helpful addendum to that film and a handsomely constructed one at that.

Setting that aside: Shall we consider the single-performance film angle?


Every year sees prestige pictures which exist as showcases for a marquee performance; many have come (and several have faded from consideration) already in this nascent Oscar season. Darkest Hour, however, features a remarkable performance indeed. Oldman disappears into Churchill — literally of course, with costume and makeup working overtime to turn the veteran actor into the erstwhile prime minister, but figuratively as well. This is an embodiment, a physical and emotional piece of chameleon work and very fine acting on top of that, somehow both theatrical and cinematic.

There are supporting players, of course; Ben Mendelsohn is a fine King George (well in the shadow of Colin Firth’s take on that monarch, but still), and Lily James provides a charming counterbalance to Churchill’s gravity. But Oldman tears through the film like a tornado; this is his show from reel to reel.

View it as more of the Dunkirk story or an acting spectacle, it’s a good movie. What it is not, however, is a complete movie on its own. It is those two things: a companion piece and a performance showcase. In a year with Dunkirk, it would flag; without Oldman, it would evaporate. Its tale is interesting but incidental. There are much worse criticisms, but Darkest Hour is less than the sum of its considerable parts.

My Rating: 8/10

Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at



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