Director: Joe Wright
Starring: Gary Oldman, Lily James, Kristen Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelson, Ronald Pickup
Sometimes the movies offer up strange coincidences where multiple people have the same idea at the same time. There were two blockbusters about meteorites headed to earth in 1998 (Armageddon and Deep Impact) and two animated movies about insects (A Bug’s Life and Antz). 2013 gave us two action thrillers about attacks on the White House (White House Down and Olympus has Fallen). What is true of blockbusters can also be true of dramas, and we currently find ourselves in the midst of a moment of fascination with the figure of Winston Churchill. In the last twelve months the legendary British Prime Minister has been portrayed by Brian Cox in Jonathan Teplitzky’s Churchill, by John Lithgow in the Netflix series The Crown, and now by Gary Oldman in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour. Focusing on the difficult first weeks of Churchill’s prime ministership, Darkest Hour also serves as a nice companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, presenting a different angle on the Miracle at Dunkirk.
By May of 1940, with Hitler’s forces having invaded Holland and Belgium, and with France on the verge of surrender, the British parliament had lost faith in the leadership of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup). While he is not popular in his party, the government know their only hope of forming a wartime coalition with the opposition is to give the job to Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman). Handed the position in the most trying of circumstances, Churchill enjoys neither the clear backing of his party, many of who are still loyal to Chamberlain, nor the crown, with King George (Ben Mendelson) unconvinced of his suitability. In his first speech in the House of Commons he confirms his dedication to victory at all costs, an approach seen as dangerous, delusional folly by many in his party, particularly Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) who would rather he pursue peace talks with Hitler. But Churchill knows any peace treaty in their current desperate position would be tantamount to surrender. And then there is the matter of the 300,000 British infantrymen who find themselves trapped on the beach at Dunkirk without means of extraction having been driven back by the Nazi army. With the support of his dutiful secretary Miss Layton (Lily James) and formidable wife Clemmie (Kristen Scott Thomas), Churchill must find a way to unite the parliament and inspire the nation at a time when hope appears all but lost.
Darkest Hour presents a very favourable, romantic view of Churchill. While there is acknowledgement that he was a difficult person – we get plenty of exposition in the form of anonymous parliamentarians talking to each other about him, and our introduction to the character sees him losing his temper at Miss Layton in her first moments on the job – that difficult nature is never really explored as a weakness or character flaw. It is merely a foible. Churchill as a character is not required to learn or change dramatically over the course of the film. This is a story of perseverance, of doing what he believed to be right in the face of great hurdles and potential catastrophe. He is shown to be a man of principle and conviction, a picture of isolation with the weight of the world on his shoulders, and with the benefit of hindsight the film paints anyone who doesn’t agree with his strategy as either foolish or evil.
There are two types of actor. There are those who transform the role into some version of themselves, and there are those who completely disappear into the character. Gary Oldman is the latter. He is one of the great chameleons (there is a reason you have never seen anyone do a Gary Oldman impersonation). With the assistance of some impressive prosthetics designed by Kazuhiro Tsuji Oldman is unrecognisable as Churchill. But his performance is not simple impersonation. Oldman constructs a full and living character. His performance captures the brilliance, abrasiveness and humour of the man. His Churchill is a cheeky old bugger. He shows us the steadfast determination for which he is celebrated, but also the more private moments of self-doubt. It should also be noted that Kristen Scott Thomas makes a strong impact in comparatively limited time, presenting a character who we can understand as being married to Churchill and able to give as good as she gets in that relationship.
Films like this – that is, biographies of well-known figures featuring prominent actors undergoing impressive transformations – can often be overshadowed by their lead performances, seemingly becoming nothing more than an acting showcase. But that is not the case in Darkest Hour. While the film is chock full of talking, whether it be war room negotiations or, unsurprisingly in a film about Winston Churchill, stirring oration, director Joe Wright finds a way to make it visually interesting, even cinematic. Wright has a real flair for period pieces and an ability to bring vibrancy to a genre which can often be quite stagey. While a lesser director may have chosen to constantly cut to the battlefront, in particular to the beach at Dunkirk, as a means of both reminding the viewer of the stakes and opening the film up visually, Wright chooses to stay enclosed in the war rooms beneath Westminster Palace, in the houses of parliament and Churchill’s private residence. More to the point, he keeps us with our man, retaining his point of view. It also proves a wise call as scenes from the front would likely have suffered not only in comparison to Nolan’s representation in Dunkirk, but also to Joe Wright’s own depiction in Atonement, in which he captured the chaos of the beach at Dunkirk in an amazing five-minute tracking shot.
The screenplay by Anthony McCarten supplements its history with some romantic imaginings, in particular one fabricated scene in which Churchill goes rogue and takes a ride on the London underground, taking the opportunity to talk to the common people and be inspired by their fortitude. It is a hokey scene, but inspiring none the less. With a focus on behind-closed-doors machinations and a healthy dose of political intrigue, Darkest Hour captures a key moment in the turning of the Second World War and the making of one of the most celebrated leaders of the 20th century.
Review by Duncan McLean
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