A stirring character piece, Darkest Hour is an engrossing and excellent depiction of Winston Churchill at a pivotal time, with Gary Oldman both outstanding and unrecognisable in the lead role.
It’s 1940, and World War Two is threatening to grow into a very real prospect for Britain. After Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) is sidelined by King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), Winston Churchill (Oldman) is parachuted in as the new Prime Minister for wartime. Churchill faces tough and impossible decisions as the Germans pin the French and British soldiers back at Dunkirk, as well as the machinations of the peace-deal seeking Halifax (Stephen Dillane).
You could (and someone has made a trailer) edit this film together with Dunkirk, as they both take place around the same time. Where Christopher Nolan focused on the people involved at the bloody end of the spear, Joe Wright crafts a great film out of a brilliant character study from Anthony McCarten, of the man behind the civilian mobilisation, the last stand and the perceived defeat that actually ended up saving the UK’s armed forces from obliteration.
In his previous film Atonement, Wright actually depicted the Dunkirk evacuation, so it’s fitting that he returns to the same period to focus on the political situation. The director employs some impressive visual tricks to hint at and show the turmoil in northern France, with some excellent cuts and fades artistically sweeping us from Normandy to Downing Street.
There are a lot of talky dialogue scenes throughout, filled with political wartime intrigue, but it’s to Wright’s credit that he makes you feel the urgency of the conversations, and their nationwide (and international) potential for change. Churchill’s famous speeches and bon mots are present and correct, but given a new freshness by the way they’re both staged and acted out, as well as where they appear in the throughline of the plot.
In addition, the muted and austere cinematography of Bruno Delbonnel evokes the downtrodden, smoky and grim reality of 1950s London, though he pierces this at times with excellent use of natural light to illuminate proceedings. The contrasts and shots used in the parliament scenes in particular are excellent, with the stuffy, dark hall of the Commons skewered by white exterior light in an almost symbolic way.
I should mention the settings and the sets, which are either real places or excellently built facsimiles, notably parliament, 10 Downing Street, the war rooms and Buckingham Palace. A stirring, powerful soundtrack from Dario Marinelli also propels the film forward, but settles for the quieter, more contemplative events.
The film would not be what it is without Gary Oldman though (and the make up genius of Kazuhiro Tsuji). In what can only be described as a spectacular transformation, you forget it’s the British actor, and that really sweeps you into the film. Th best testimonial I can give is that he imbues Churchill with the vim and fire of his other roles, but also brings a tired and weary, emotional side to the famous figure (a few smaller scenes hint at his lifelong struggle with depression too).
Only in some of his more shouty scenes can you hear the East Ender underneath, but that isn’t a criticism at all. I thought in paying tribute but also in poking at the mythmaking around Churchill (he was nowhere near perfect), Oldman gives a nuanced, gripping and excellent performance. In my eyes, it makes him a big favourite for Best Actor at the Oscars.
There is a danger that with such a huge leading role and performance, others may get left in the dust. Lily James does what she can to humanise Churchill as his secretary Elizabeth Layton, though she is quite poorly developed as a character and seems to only serve as a moral compass or plot mover, which is a shame.
On the other side, Kristin Scott Thomas’ icy yet fiery portrayal of Clementine Churchill, Winston’s wife, is so good that I wish there had been more of it. The actress swoops from cutting to loving in a heartbeat, her scenes with Oldman witty and snappy, and it’s a shame that she wasn’t in the film as much as she maybe could or should have been.
That’s largely because a lot of the film involves Pickup’s Neville Chamberlain and Dillane’s Viscount Halifax, the former of which resigns as Prime Minister and the latter of whom wants to become Prime Minister. Both cast aside for differing reasons, they are almost staged as plotting against Churchill (making, if you will, them both the “villains” of the piece).
The interesting thing is that their performances, while stuffy and posh (as you might expect of WW2-era Tory politicians) are also supplemented with little areas of emotional burst. Pickup is understated as a much derided man with a time limit, and who hopes to try and salvage a peace if possible, while Dillane subverts his usual stern, grim demeanour (see Game of Thrones) for this serious but morally passionate man, whose main crime is really that he wants to stop the bloodshed in any way he can.
Another chameleonic appearance from Ben Mendelsohn sees the Aussie, so often the leery villain, play King George VI in a pleasant and surprising break from stereotype. Nailing the affected cadence of the royals, Mendelsohn gives a very different type of performance – restrained, regal and with an economy of movement – that is both interesting and memorable, especially in his few scenes with Oldman.
While its female characters are underserved, despite their importance to the man, in summation, for me Darkest Hour is a powerhouse of a film – it’s well worth seeing (preferably close to Dunkirk!) just for Gary Oldman’s amazing work.