If you know me, you know I am always up for a history lesson. Historical period pieces are important in film as they can paint a picture of a specific figure or event and how they shaped history. Filmmaker Joe Wright, someone more than familiar with period piece dramas, shines a light on Winston Churchill’s early days as prime minister of the United Kingdom and the approach Churchill took to confront the encroaching Nazi threat during World War II. While Wright does his part – hitting all the beats and effectively placing the viewer in 1940 Britain, while also holding audiences with select shot choices and a solid script – it is truly Gary Oldman’s turn as Winston Churchill that gives this movie the extra spark that makes it shine.
Darkest Hour (2017) begins in Britain as German forces advance deeper into France, and British Parliament decides Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s approach to the war is not working. After Chamberlain resigns and Lord Halifax (Game of Thrones alum Stephen Dillane) passes on the opportunity to succeed him, Parliament reluctantly turns to a bombastic and unpredictable Winston Churchill for the job. Churchill then dives into the two main narratives of the film: dealing with a potential peace treaty with the Nazis before they make their way to the UK, and figuring out an exit strategy for the 300,000 British troops stranded at Dunkirk (hey, look at that, two films about Dunkirk in one year). Having already seen Christopher Nolan’s summer blockbuster Dunkirk (2017) certainly helped my knowledge and understanding of the events of Darkest Hour. Dunkirk’s foundation also helps to raise the stakes for Churchill and the UK. While I’d like to think that Joe Wright’s direction and storytelling were what kept me engrossed throughout the movie, I have to admit that my viewing of Nolan’s Dunkirk made the experience more engaging. It’s great to see Darkest Hour as a companion-piece to Dunkirk and the roots of Operation Dynamo – along with the hoops Churchill has to jump through to get it off the ground.
Like Steven Spielberg with Lincoln (2012), Wright chooses to focus on a few sequential key events in Churchill’s life rather than cover the full scope of it and the long term effects he had on the world. Like Lincoln, Darkest Hour serves as a guidebook on leadership and unification, brought home by Oldman’s stellar frontline performance. I’ve always been a fan of Oldman’s acting skills and commitment to roles. He is standout in supporting roles such as True Romance (1993) or franchisees like Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004). Also, to me, he is the definitive Jim Gordon – thanks to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Much like Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln, Oldman is practically unrecognizable in his portrayal of Churchill. While there are no recordings of Lincoln’s voice on official record (to my knowledge), anyone who has attended a world history class in high school has heard any number of words spoken by Winston Churchill. To say that Oldman captures the essence of the man is an understatement. As the title above states: Gary Oldman IS Winston Churchill. From a gravelly, distinct voice to authentic mannerisms and uncanny prosthetics from David Malinowski, Oldman takes it to another level and truly brings the former Prime Minister to life. It’s nearly excusable to use the cliche that it feels like you are watching Winston Churchill himself on-screen. Thanks not only to Oldman’s performance and Malinowski’s makeup design, but also to screenplay-writer Anthony McCarten for focusing on his early days as Prime Minister to capture just the core of Churchill, rather than diluting the character by attempting to represent everything from crying birth to peaceful death.
Not only focusing on Operation Dynamo to effectively showcase who Churchill was, the film also shows how his personal life was affected by the events. Kristin Scott Thomas has only a handful of scenes with Churchill, portraying his devoted wife Clementine. She finds a way to make every second count to support the cause of the protagonist; but I wish she didn’t simply feel like a one-dimensional plot-mover. She isn’t as fleshed out as Sally Fields’ Mary Todd in Lincoln, but Thomas does the best she can with the script she’s given. Ben Mendelsohn’s portrayal of King George VI is not what I had expected. If you have seen The King’s Speech (2010), or know your fair share of history, then you’re familiar with George VI’s speech problem and his being known as “The King who Stutters.” Mendelsohn shows no signs of stuttering in the film, and while it can be considered a nuanced performance by some, to me it feels as if he wasn’t as prepared for the role as he could have been. He doesn’t need to be a muttering, stuttering person, but it would have been great to see the King still struggling even a little bit with his speech impediment.
Darkest Hour, to be blunt, is Oscar-bait done right. Everyone working on this film does almost too good of a job in their respective departments. Outside of the more-than-Oscar-worthy performance from Oldman, cinematographer Bruno Delbonell’s shot selection is standout. You never wonder why the camera is where it is. With plenty of closeups to show off Churchill’s prostheses and careful shot choices to paint Churchill’s mood or that of the room, everything feels deliberate, but nothing feels forced down your throat. Even composer Dario Marianelli evokes an emotional response to his piano-heavy score that accompanies you throughout the entire movie. It’s loud when it needs to be and somber when it ought to be. Like Churchill himself, the music is almost unpredictable, but it never feels out of place.
The movie isn’t without its flaws. It does feel, often, like the narrative is just moving from speech to speech and if you aren’t into history (WWII UK history specifically), it can feel monotonous. It’s Oldman’s performance (supported by Wright’s direction) and Delbonell’s camerawork that make this history lesson a lot more interesting than you remember it being when your eyes would droop during world history class. Being a leader is never an easy task – especially in the face of a German invasion knocking on your door. If not for Churchill’s courage and cocksure commitment to ‘never surrender,’ who knows where history could have led us.
If for anything, see this movie for Gary Oldman’s captivating performance as Winston Churchill. If you are into period piece dramas that respectfully and accurately portray world-changing events, then The Darkest Hour should be a good time. As Lincoln did for Honest Abe, The Darkest Hour perfectly epitomizes who Winston Churchill was and drives home the underlying point that there is a reason historians and educators still look to Churchill for inspiration; or just a funny joke to ease the ceaseless world-tension we all feel like a splinter.