Darkest Hour (2017)
A man with the heart of a nation
Throughout history, there have been many on-screen representations of famed U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill. From Brian Cox’s recent portrayal of the political leader in Churchill (2017) to Timothy Spall’s rendition of the British ‘bulldog’ in 2010’s award winning The King’s Speech, many have stepped into the big man’s shoes. Heck, even John Lithgow is having a crack at playing an older Sir Winston in the excellent Netflix series The Crown (2016). Needless to say, no depiction has been quite as transformative as Gary Oldman’s robust, cigar chomping turn in director Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour. Donning plenty of prosthetics and a convincing fat suit, designed by Japanese makeup magician Kazuhiro Tsuji, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), Oldman is by far the best thing about the film, which mainly focuses on Churchill’s early days in office, around the D-Day invasion of France during World War II.
With Joe Wright having already captured the beaches of Dunkirk via an outstanding five-minute tracking shot in Atonement (2007) — eat your hear out Christopher Nolan — the filmmaker now shifts his attention to the other side of Operation Dynamo, the majority of this wordy biopic taking place away from the action, primarily in bunker-type meeting rooms beneath Westminster Palace or Churchill’s festooned home.
Sort of working as a companion piece to Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017), Darkest Hour opens in the smoky House of Commons, before cutting to the 65-year-old Churchill, who’s breakfasting on bacon, eggs and alcohol in his bedroom. It’s May 1940, and France and Belgium are on the verge of surrendering to Adolf Hitler and his armed forces. To make matters worse, parliament has lost faith in their prime minister, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), who’s deemed too weak to lead due to his life-threatening cancer. After tendering his resignation to King George IV (Ben Mendelsohn), Chamberlain informs his advisers that he wants Foreign Secretary Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) to take over, but Halifax feels as though his time has not yet come. Thus, at the behest of his colleagues, Chamberlain is forced to choose the only other man who’ll be accepted, and that man is the ‘brute’ they call Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty.
What follows is a dramatization of Churchill’s first month as prime minister and the conflicts he faced along the way, chiefly with his war council, led by Halifax, who urged the cabinet to entertain the notion of peace talks with Hitler through Mussolini. We also get a behind-the-scenes look at how the legendary Operation Dynamo was executed — the astounding evacuation of Britain’s entire Expeditionary Force, who were stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk. Let’s not forget about Chruchill’s three linchpin speeches, addresses he delivered between May and June of 1940, including his well-known ‘We Shall Fight on the Beaches’ spiel, the aforementioned performed with gusto by a spirited Oldman.
From the onset, it’s clear that director Wright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten, The Theory of Everything (2014), aim to inject as much humor into their film as possible; for instance, the iconic Churchill is seen working from both his bathtub and toilet, later pleased with the blue-collar interpretation of his infamous ‘V for Victory’ gesture, which can also be read as ‘Up your bum!’ Moreover, for the first time in recent memory, the pudgy, hot-tempered Britt is portrayed as being somewhat ill prepared when it comes to dealing with the threat of the nation’s national security, McCarten’s script exposing some of his flaws and vulnerabilities; a scene that sees Churchill call U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and basically beg for help is a far cry from the way he’s been presented in other biographical accounts. McCarten, however, does take a bit of creative license with the material, namely in a contrived make-believe sequence that sees Churchill ‘go rogue’ just before his big parliament address, jumping aboard the London Underground to gauge the mood of the people in the streets, who stir him with their bold stance toward the Nazis and their determination to keep on fighting, no matter the cost.
Just like the movie’s overall tone, the central performance appears to be inflated for dramatic effect, Oldman pretty much disappearing under layers of latex for the part. Bordering on caricature, Oldman chews the scenery with his fierce, commanding presence, playing up the prime minister’s uncompromising persona, along with his more mischievous side. True, Gary Oldman’s never really delivered a ‘dull’ performance (from Sid Vicious to Count Dracula to Lee Harvey Oswald), but his work here is truly superb; having already nabbed a Golden Globe, an Oscar is certainly within his reach. In fact, I’m sure many will be surprised if Oldman doesn’t walk away flicking a V for Victory.
Unfortunately, the rest of the cast are serviceable if not one-dimensional. Kristin Scott Thomas, The English Patient (1996), makes the most of her lightweight part as Churchill’s supportive yet exasperated wife Clementine, while Australia’s Ben Mendelsohn, Animal Kingdom (2010), is solid as the ‘reluctant’ King George IV, who first appeases Churchill (being more in favor of Halifax) but later warms to the PM’s hard-nosed ways. The lovely Lily James, Baby Driver (2017), barely registers as timid young typist Elizabeth Layton, who eventually breaks through Churchill’s tough exterior, making him aware that his decisions affect the lives of ordinary everyday people. Lastly, Game of Thrones (2011) alumni Stephen Dillane is okay but forgettable as the sneaky Earl of Halifax, who kinda sorta works as Churchill’s chief adversary.
Although unapologetically talky, Darkest Hour is brought to life by some excellent visuals, the sleek cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel, Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), giving the film a noirish type of feel, the French DOP using a variety of unique camera angles to capture the drama. Just on that, the bulk of the war footage is presented through a series of stunning (bird’s-eye view) aerial shots, one of which begins with bombers hitting a stretch of land in France, before morphing into a close-up of a fallen soldier — terrific stuff. Additionally, I’m sure Wright’s regular production designer Sarah Greenwood, Anna Karenina (2012), and costume designer Jacqueline Durran, Pride & Prejudice (2005), may find themselves on the receiving end of a couple of gold statuettes come awards night.
An enjoyable history lesson that plays like a bit of pulse-pounding live theater, Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour is a decent albeit conventional picture, elevated by, what could quite possibly be, the best performance in Gary Oldman’s already remarkable career. In a nutshell, I’d say Darkest Hour isn’t a bad way to spend two plus hours sitting in the dark.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Mr. Movie