Director: Joe Wright
Starring: Gary Oldman, Ben Mendelsohn, Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas, Stephen Dillane, Ronald Pickup
2017 seems to be the year of the Winston Churchill comeback. John Lithgow won praise and many awards for playing him in Netflix’s series The Crown. Now Churchill’s getting a big screen treatment with Gary Oldman as the British Prime Minister. Darkest Hour picks up on May 9, 1940 with the House of Commons in a mad frenzy over the state of Britain’s place in World War II. Boisterous remarks are declared stating that Neville Chamberlain (Pickup) is not fit to run the country and face Hitler and the Nazis. Screenwriter Andrew McCarten (The Theory of Everything) shifts the action in the next scene to his future replacement, Winston Churchill. His introduction is one of absurdity where we see him eating a massive breakfast and smoking a cigar while wearing pajamas in bed. His secretary, played by the lovely Lily James, is new to the job and experiencing his eccentricities for the first time as well.
He’s quickly sworn in at the age of sixty-six and there’s no waiting around to make impactful decisions. The film shows calendar dates dropping off quickly showcasing the quick passage of time in what he needs to accomplish. Hitler and his army can quickly take over Britain if Churchill isn’t prepared. Time isn’t the only force going against Churchill as he’s facing strong opposition from his cabinet, Chamberlain, Lord Halifax (Dillane), and even King George VI (Mendelsohn). They not only believe he is supremely unfit for the job, but also that he should negotiate with Italy, which he refuses to do. One of Churchill’s driving forces involves the troops at Dunkirk. Darkest Hour acts as a great companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s war piece Dunkirk that was released earlier this year. It’s worth seeing that film, as Darkest Hour doesn’t recreate the event. It doesn’t necessarily need to, as this film is a personal look at the extreme pressures put on someone who appears to be completely out of his element.
Joe Wright is no stranger to artistic epics having made Atonement, Pride & Prejudice, and Anna Karenina. This film’s take on Churchill at this point of his reign presents him in an almost warmly comedic way. I couldn’t help but giggle at some of the beginning introductory scenes. Wright and McCarten take what could have been a long and drawn out war negotiation movie and turned it into a whip-smart and swiftly paced movie, oddly enough, about a man who never moved all that fast and had a hard time making decisions. There isn’t a moment to lose for Britain, and Wright treats the film in the same regard.
I couldn’t help but wonder if McCarten’s choice with the dialogue and attitude forced upon Churchill in his early days was at all guided by the rhetoric used around President Trump. Churchill is often described by others as a buffoon with King George VI telling him “One doesn’t know what’s going to come out of your mouth.” Another character lambasts him for flopping back and forth between party lines claiming “He stands for one thing: himself!” It almost became distracting as I then internally debated if this is also how the world sees President Trump and what his reactions would be like if we were faced with World War III. I do want to reassure you that the climax comes with some nice redemption when he enters the subway and has some honest conversations with his citizens.
At the center of what makes Darkest Hour so gripping is the phenomenal performance by Gary Oldman as Churchill. He may just be the greatest character actor working today with a resume to prove it playing everyone from Sid Vicious (Sid and Nancy), Beethoven (Immortal Beloved), and Lee Harvey Oswald (JFK) to fictional characters like Dracula (Bram Stoker’s Dracula), Commissioner Jim Gordon (The Dark Knight trilogy), and Harry Potter’s Sirius Black. Like many of those roles, he completely disappears underneath an elaborate hair and makeup job with heavy prosthetics. He becomes completely unrecognizable as Churchill with only his distinctive voice coming through. It would be inaccurate to call it a transformation role, as there’s something a little phony with that word. Here he disappears and becomes the Prime Minister nailing the physicality and ticks that come with the character. So much of the movie is about words and the meaning behind them. Oldman is given quite a few authoritative type speeches, and he naturally nails every one of them. Oldman is joined by a dynamic ensemble with Lily James, Ben Mendelsohn, and Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient) giving a moving performance as his wife. She takes what could have been a simple minor role and gives it great depth by the time we get to the film’s final few scenes.
Darkest Hour has the look and feel Joe Wright easily captures with each movie. It looks grand with every shot. Part of this is due to the stunning cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (Inside Llewyn Davis). Yes, there is a literal sense to his work by adhering to the film’s title. He makes great with minimal lighting and shadows creating a dark and moody atmosphere. Many of the frames look like exquisite photographs taken out of a history book about this time. Wright and McCarten wisely know to keep this movie focused never giving it that generic Wikipedia lifetime sprawl of Churchill’s life. It’s a surprising look at the revered Prime Minister brought to life by the incomparable Gary Oldman.
Is It Worth Your Trip to the Movies? A great reminder of Churchill’s impact regardless of how well you know his story.
RATING: 4 out of 5 TICKET STUBS