Review: Darkest Hour: The Problem with Biopics

Lily James stars as Elizabeth Layton and Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in director Joe Wright’s DARKEST HOUR, a Focus Features release. Credit: Jack English / Focus Features

Let’s be honest, we’ve all seen this movie before at some point.

You know what movie I’m talking about: that true underdog story of a man or woman, who was very disliked in the beginning, breaking through their social barriers to make real change, whether that change be in politics, film, music, etc. This film I’m describing is your standard biopic.

The term bio-pic is short for biographical picture, so this sub-genre of film mostly focuses on true life stories of real and influential people, and most of them subscribe to the formula mentioned above. The most popular, and effective biopics use this formula, but make variations to it. The best examples of this would be films like The Aviator, Goodfellas, Walk the Line, Lawrence of Arabia, Ray, and more recently, The Disaster Artist. There are even films like this that break the mold that I mentioned previously like Love & Mercy, Malcolm X, Ed Wood, Man on the Moon, Frida, Secret Honor, The Social Network, Raging Bull, I’m Not There, and Steve Jobs, which use non-linear structures or examine short periods of time in the persons life instead of trying to cover every one of their accomplishments in a two hour time frame.

landscape_movies-walk-the-line-joaquin-phoenix.jpgHowever, the films that have actually perfected this formula are few and far between. The majority of biopics are incredibly stale, bland, and lazy ways of big studios trying to win an Oscar. These films range from being flat out bad (Jobs, Gacy, I Saw The Light, Hidden Figures, J. Edgar, American Made, Amelia, Gold, Jersey Boys, American Sniper) to being painfully average like The Founder, Lincoln, Bleed for This, and most recently, Darkest Hour.

I wouldn’t necessarily call Darkest Hour bad, in fact, it has quite a few great moments. For the most part, Gary Oldman is really solid, but I can’t help but feel that the majority of his performance is more of a caricature of Winston Churchill than it is an actual portrayal. This movie follows essentially every single beat I mentioned is that biopic formula, and it does pretty much nothing to try and make it stand out among those other films. Just like every other semi-average biopic ever made, it relies solely on the fact that you’re supposed to enjoy it by default because it’s covering the life of a very important historical figure, but it does none of the necessary work to actually make you care about Churchill as a character. He has a few down to earth moments, but absolutely none of it feels natural in the slightest.


The film centers around the conflict in Dunkirk, and how Churchill solves it, and we’re supposed to be on the edge of our seats the entire time as Churchill constantly argues and argues his points, and we’re automatically supposed to care by default because Churchill is our main character, but once again, the lack of true and genuine characterization takes a real toll on the movie. There is maybe one or two moments where he has a real heart to heart with his wife (played competently by Kristen Scott Thomas), but that is not nearly substantial enough to make your audience care about the main character.

NYET964-1121_2016_151731_hd.jpgYes, there is definitely a level of importance in telling stories about real people, but they need to feel genuine and not ridiculously artificial. I cannot tell you how many times I groaned when Churchill would start giving one of his monologues and the overblown and cheesy score started playing. The cynicism behind these movies is so painfully transparent that it makes me lose hope for the genre as a whole, and I hate to say that because it should be a very important one. This feels more like a cheesy stage play than an intimate look at Winston Churchill as a human being. It’s even more of a shame that this wasn’t as great as it could’ve been because after seeing the film, Joe Wright, the director of the film, came out to speak.

image.jpgHe talked about how after making his last film, Pan (a commercial and critical flop of Waterworld proportions), he has lost hope, and that he really related to Winston Churchill’s struggles and that’s why he made the movie. This did make me appreciate the film a bit more, but if I’m being honest, Joe Wright brought absolutely nothing special to the directing of this film. The whole movie is grey, the editing is subpar, the cinematography is bland and boring, and there is virtually no style to be found. Now I’m not saying every movie has to be super stylized and overblown, but he could’ve brought something unique and interesting to the table instead of taking a workman like attitude to a job where the whole point is to be creative.

This movie is just disappointing more than anything. I really wanted to love this, but I just couldn’t. Nothing about this spoke to me at all, and I’m starting to see now that I’m not alone on that. There’s been quite a bit of backlash at this movie about how it’s structured and made. I even read one review saying that if they didn’t know any better they would think this movie was a parody of biopics, and honestly, I couldn’t agree more. For the longest time I thought it was deadlocked for Gary Oldman to win best actor, but now, thankfully, that doesn’t seem like it’s going to be the case.


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