- RatedPG /GenreDrama, History, War
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Having helmed Pride & Prejudice, Atonement and Anna Karenina, director Joe Wright is no stranger to prestige films. After taking a perhaps ill-advised detour into the realm of fantasy adventure with Pan, Wright is back in awards season territory with this historical drama. His subject: one of the most iconic Britons in recent history – Winston Churchill.
It is May 1940, and Nazi forces are advancing across western Europe. In the United Kingdom, the Opposition Labour Party demands for the resignation of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), who is deemed ill-suited to lead Britain in war. Chamberlain’s first choice to succeed him is the Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), but Halifax declines. Chamberlain then appoints the one man whom the Opposition party would support: Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman).
Churchill is dogged by military failures in his earlier career, including the Gallipoli Campaign during WWI. King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) is not the biggest fan of Churchill, since Churchill supported the abdication of George’s brother Edward VIII. Churchill’s wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) and his new secretary Elizabeth (Lily James) bear the brunt of his irritability – Clementine is used to it, Elizabeth less so.
Churchill is immediately faced with a barrage of tough decisions: Halifax and Chamberlain place pressure on Churchill to consider negotiating with Hitler, just as the British Expeditionary Forces are trapped at Dunkirk and Calais in France. The War Cabinet Crisis is brewing, with Chamberlain and Halifax hoping to engineer a Vote of No Confidence in Churchill to force his removal from office. As the British Empire is plunged headlong into war, can Churchill lead them to victory? (Spoiler alert: he does)
Darkest Hour is written by New Zealander novelist and playwright Anthony McCarten, who received an Oscar nomination for The Theory of Everything. On the surface, Darkest Hour seems like standard awards season fare, and yet another example of “Englishness = prestige”. While this political drama could have turned out stodgy, director Wright and writer McCarten ensure it is anything but.
There’s an invigorating forcefulness to the film, a momentum and urgency which other similar movies, including 2017’s Churchill starring Brian Cox, lack. There’s a propulsive energy to Darkest Hour, such that things are never standing still, even when two characters are having a quiet conversation. The writing bubbles over with wit, and the grave stakes are firmly established while leaving room for some much-needed humour.
The film’s atmospherics reel the viewer in as much as the performances, which we’ll get to in a bit, do. Darkest Hour is cinematic in that it feels deliberately constructed and staged, but this never pulls one out of it. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel employs lighting boldly and exquisitely – Churchill is revealed by way of his face being illuminated by a lit match. The sound design and editing is given precedence over the score, and it creates a uniquely immersive effect. Sarah Greenwood’s production design is authentic, with the subterranean military citadels beneath Whitehall where the War Cabinet is huddled being an especially realistic set. One can almost smell the cigar smoke wafting off the screen.
Said cigars are typically held between the stubby fingers of Oldman’s Churchill. This is an audacious bit of casting which has more than paid off. Oldman takes on this daunting role with unbridled brio, carefully crafting an entertaining, astounding performance. The special effects makeup required to transform Oldman into Churchill was designed by Kazuhiro Tsuji, and took four hours to put on each day. Oldman captures Churchill’s distinctive physicality in ways obvious and subtle. This is an actor long overdue for an Oscar, and it’s hard to argue that this performance doesn’t deserve that honour.
Because Oldman’s presence in the film is so forceful, and because the film’s focus is trained so squarely on Churchill, the supporting players don’t get too much of the spotlight. However, they ideally complement the film’s star.
Mendelsohn conveys King George VI’s awkwardness and hints at his temper. While Colin Firth’s portrayal of “Bertie” might have won hearts (and an Oscar), Mendelsohn does bear more of a physical resemblance to the historical figure. The evolution of the working relationship between the King and the new Prime Minister, which starts out quite testy indeed, is sensitively portrayed.
Kristin Scott Thomas is the picture of refined grace as Clementine. Nobody quite knows Churchill like his beloved wife does, and Thomas’ twinkle-in-the-eye performance is appealing.
James’ Elizabeth is based on a real-life figure, but the real Elizabeth Layton didn’t become Churchill’s secretary until around a year after the events depicted in the film. James is proper and charming as always, and Elizabeth serves as a fine audience identification character. One of this reviewer’s favourite moments in the film is when Elizabeth manages to momentarily break her boss’s unyielding exterior and they share a hearty laugh over a silly mistake Churchill has made.
Halifax and Chamberlain are depicted as being in opposition to Churchill, but the film makes sure to articulate their point of view. To them, Churchill’s insistence on fighting on at all costs and his stubborn refusal to even entertain the thought of peace talks is foolhardy. That’s not an entirely unjustified point of view, given the circumstances. The late John Hurt was slated to play Chamberlain, but was replaced by Ronald Pickup after Hurt died in early 2017.
There are a few moments in Darkest Hour that ring false, most notably an impromptu meet-the-people session in an unusual locale. As in any historical drama, there are moments that have been embellished for dramatic effect. However, an impressive, bravura performance from a masterful actor and some confident stylistic flourishes keep Darkest Hour thrilling and compelling.
RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars