Director: Joe Wright
Runtime: 125 minutes
During World War II, Winston Churchill was fighting a war on two fronts at once—against Germany, which had invaded France and cornered British forces on the beaches of Dunkirk, and against his government, who initially did not support his choice to declare war. Darkest Hour, the newest offering from Atonement director Joe Wright, details that key moment in Winston Churchill’s career. Gary Oldman’s performance as the portly, cigar-chomping, boulder hat-wearing PM is the film’s selling point, and it is an astonishing transformation (even for Gary Oldman). It is a monumental acting job and might be this year’s best lead actor performance.
In May 1940, Germany’s invasion of France and Belgium results in calls for the resignation of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain by the Opposition in Parliament. With no other alternative, the government turns to Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, as Chamberlain’s successor. Though Churchill is disliked equally by both parties as well as King George V (Ben Mendelsohn), he is popular among the people after his stance against appeasement in the 1930s. When Churchill takes charge, he refuses to entertain the idea of peace negotiations and orders a suicide mission to evacuate the soldiers from Dunkirk. In response, members of Churchill’s war ministry devise a plan that would pressure him to resign and replace him with Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane, Game of Thrones).
Darkest Hour is much better earlier in the piece, when it depicts Churchill’s outspoken and eccentric personality. The screenplay by Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything) laces the dry material with several amusing moments. His first scene, where he dictates his speech to his young, attractive typist Elizabeth (Lily James) in his bedroom is a brilliant and funny moment that establishes Churchill’s habit of mumbling and inability to win people over. One of the funniest scenes is when Churchill’s does the “V for Victory” hand gesture incorrectly, which gives off a different and awkward sign.
Darkest Hour is a movie of words rather than action, and it contains no war scenes. However, as evidenced in Atonement and Anna Karena, Joe Wright is a stylish filmmaker, and he gives the dry material a cinema-worthy aesthetic. He uses giant on-screen captions, long craning shots within the House of Commons and innovative camera angles (he even puts the camera inside Elizabeth’s typewriter). Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie and Inside Llewyn Davis) uses a lot of subdued light and shadows, giving the film’s visuals a striking quality.
Gary Oldman completely inhabits Winston Churchill. There’s never a feeling that the layers of prosthetics on Oldman’s face restricts his acting. The actor nails Churchill’s mumbling and long thunderous monologues, including the famous “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech. The make-up by Oscar-winner Kazuhiro Tsuji looks amazingly real in the many close-ups that Oldman dominates. It’s hard to argue that less of Oldman would have made Darkest Hour a better movie, because he is so good. The problem is Darkest Hour is entirely his. A stronger movie would allow us to get to know the supporting characters on a more personal level. Lily James, Ben Mendelsohn and Kristen Scott Thomas as Winston’s wife Clementine offer solid support, but this is Oldman’s movie. It’s close to feeling like a one-man show.
If you look at Darkest Hour as a Winston Churchill showpiece, it works. It would make a great companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk to offer varying perspectives of Britain’s military actions. Wright is more interested in how the fate of Western Europe hung on this man’s shoulders and how his beliefs changed the course of history. Wright has also acknowledged that certain events in the film were fabricated to move the story along, but his passion for history and attention to detail is exemplary. Darkest Hour’s narrative doesn’t try anything new, but it will certainly surprise and intrigue people (like me) who knew of Churchill’s name but not his achievements.