As Gary Oldman starts to receive awards-attention for his role as Winston Churchill, Film Editor Patrick Box checks out the Darkest Hour
This ground has been trod before, and undoubtably cinema will tread it again countless more times in our lifetimes. In fact casting an eye over only the previous two years The Darkest Hour can be viewed, alternatively, as a companion piece to the previous July’s Dunkirk, a prequel to June’s Churchill, and an intriguing point of comparison to 2016’s first season of Netflix’s The Crown. It’s a true testament to the film that it manages to dodge feelings of familiarity and fatigue and emerge as a highly engaging drama, in its own right, anchored by a rock-solid central performance and some superb directing.
Set in 1940, immediately after the resignation of Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), the film follows the very early days of Winston Churchill’s (Gary Oldman) first term as Prime Minister. With Hitler’s forces thundering across western Europe Churchill faces a battle much closer to home in the form of his own war cabinet, led by Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), who believe the best course of action is still to make peace with the Nazis. On top of that the PM must also battle his own doubts over how truthful he should be to the public, and combat the skepticism of King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn). Screenwriter Anthony McCarten has made an atypical choice of the period of history the film explores, and in large part this is the reason the film still manages to surprise. Certain facts that have been forgotten by the popular consciousness, (such as the power still held by Chamberlain within government after his resignation or the scale of the reservations Britain held over going to war again) are made the focus of the film.
The main draw of the film though, and also what it is seemingly most concerned with, is the central performance of Gary Oldman as Churchill. With titans such as Brendan Gleeson, Timothy Spall, Brian Cox, and John Lithgow all having recently donned the top had and chomped the trademark cigar Oldman has a lot to live up to. Predictably he doesn’t disappoint inhabiting the role completely and blowing his competition out of the water. Oldman, aided by some brilliant prosthetics that enhance rather than distract from his performance, manages to embody all of the bluster, wit, and charisma one associates with Churchill but also manages to simultaneously capitalise on his flaws. The film makes it clear to its audience that above all else Churchill appeared as a curmudgeon and a warmonger to his fellow politicians. Dogged by a career of failure, his absolute certainty that Britain should go down fighting rather than capitulate comes across as a narcissistic refusal to accept when he is beaten rather than true patriotism. Speeding through Westminster on light-feet, smoking an endless number of cigars, and chugging enough alcohol to fell a Rhino you catch yourself sometimes agreeing with his detractors that perhaps he is a little unhinged. But of course his oratory abilities put these doubts to rest and Oldman has no trouble with the many speeches he is forced to make over the course of the movie.
Despite the majority of the film’s weight resting on his shoulders, the film is helped along by some equally talented performers. Like Oldman, Ben Mendelsohn has some large shoes to fill as George VI with actors such as Colin Firth and Jared Harris having given arguably iconic turns as the King. What Mendlsohn does is bring his trademark severity to the role, in some scenes it borders on the sinister, as he doubts the abilities of his government’s new PM. The criminally underrated Stephen Dillane is ideal as Lord Halifax, Churchill’s greatest threat to both his position and his ego. With the steely determination of a predator he spends the majority of the film running circles around Churchill, who can only indignantly bluster in defence. A political creature, Dillane still makes it clear that he has the UK’s best interest in heart; to him Churchill’s ego will ensure the destruction he believes is inevitable if Hitler is challenged. Lily James is surprisingly toned down as Churchill’s secretary Elizabeth Layton, and is better for it, whilst Kristen Scott Thomas is underserved but pitch-perfect as his long-suffering wife Clementine. The warmth of their relationship is felt but is sadly very rarely the focus. As other reviews have noticed the film does struggle to place female characters in its narrative, with so much of the film being dominated by cabinet meetings and parliamentary speeches.
Oldman’s true co-star however is Director Joe Wright. As previously stated so much of the film is dominated by stuffy interiors, that it’s hard not to be impressed by the visual flair apparent on screen. His use of framing, and lighting is spectacular and gives the film an almost Noirish feel. This is a film where every scene is the highest of drama; the camera is at home in the closeup and the sound department is working overtime constantly. With everything turned up to such a high degree there is the constant threat of the film straying into cheese territory. For the most part the film walks this line well, but there are definitely some scenes that will cause a couple eye-rolls amongst the more cynical movie-goers. Personally, I’m embarrassed to say I did get swept up in the drama several times and conclude that I must had something in my eye at several key points in the story. Also given the patriotic nature of the film its inevitable that people on both sides of the current political divide will argue that there is a contemporary analogue at work in the film. But it’s best to ignore them. The film is a powerful character-study, and a enthrallingly entertaining period drama. Nothing else.
Verdict: Anchored by potentially the best depiction of Churchill on film yet in Oldman’s powerhouse performance, The Darkest Hour also boasts brilliant performances from the rest of the cast and the best directing of Joe Wright’s career. Taken alone any one of those factors is worth the price of admission. So long as you’re not adverse to some gratuitous flag-waving and a bit of cheese.