While star Gary Oldman has received a lot of publicity for how completely he’s transformed himself into World War II British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the main reason to catch Darkest Hour is to see the forceful, spellbinding orator presented as a human being.
These days, Churchill is seen as a prescient thinker who fought back when his predecessor Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) all too quickly appeased Germany’s Adolf Hitler as he was gobbling up Europe. While there are busts of Churchill all over the globe now, in 1940, the idea that anyone would want to immortalize the man would have seemed preposterous.
Screenwriter Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything) depicts a far more intriguing individual. If history, or possibly Drunk History, makes Churchill look both heroic and ideally suited to take on Der Fuhrer, Darkest Hour depicts him as a compromise candidate who simply got the job because Chamberlain had bunged the task so badly.
“…the men facing the beach can be grateful to a pudgy, hard-drinking mumbling fellow who is just as gutsy as they were.”
The different parties in Parliament settle on Churchill because he seems the least odious selection, even though his blunders in the past make him appear equally maladroit.
Supporters and detractors continually remind him how his leadership in the battle for the Gallipoli peninsula from 1914 to 1915 ended with nearly 250,000 Allied casualties and a humiliating retreat. It’s understandable that the House of Commons has difficulty embracing Churchill because he’s switched parties when it suited his needs.
Churchill’s resolute tone and firm understanding that any deal with Hitler will be broken by the dictator leads one official to scoff, “A stopped clock is right twice a day.” Even King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) thinks little of the man living in 10 Downing Street. The Sovereign nervously wipes his hand on his trousers after shaking hands with Churchill.
Because his hold on power on power is so precarious, Darkest Hour has an energy that most political dramas don’t possess. Churchill has to keep his job despite legions of people in the House of Commons who want the position for themselves or their allies. On top of that Churchill has to deal with the fact that Hitler’s conquest of Europe is nearly complete and that most of Great Britain’s troops are stuck facing the sea at Dunkirk, awaiting a rescue that might not come.
“While there are busts of Churchill all over the globe now, in 1940, the idea that anyone would want to immortalize the man would have seemed preposterous.”
Churchill attempts to bluff his way through the crisis until he can somehow manage to get hundreds of thousands of troops out of harm’s way. It’s difficult to tell whether we should admire him for his resolve or despise him for denying the impending danger.
With all of this weighty subject matter, it’s tempting to think of Darkest Hour as a somber experience. Thankfully, neither McCarten nor director Joe Wright (Atonement, Anna Karenina) seem intent on making viewers reach for Prozac. Instead, they concentrate on recreating the Prime Minister’s stress levels and revelling in dark humor.
Darkest Hour reminds me of the old joke that would-be Parliament bomber Guy Fawkes was the only man who walked into the building with honest intentions. Oldman has a ball recreating Churchill’s countless eccentricities like mumbling speeches to his frustrated secretary (an appropriately harried Lily James) that he would later deliver with fire and conviction on the floor of Parliament. He’s an amazing writer and speaker, if whomever is transcribing what he’s saying under his breath can understand him.
Churchill’s blunt and temperamental manner is certainly off putting, but at this moment in England’s history, he’s far better suited than his more tactful antagonists. Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), for example, has far more respect from the rank-and-file in the Commons, but he seems almost giddy at the prospect of working out a peace deal with Axis powers. Churchill certainly deserves to be reminded of his folly at Gallipoli, but Halifax seems to have forgotten how well “peace in our time” worked out.
It’s a testament to Wright and McCarten’s storytelling that Oldman’s complete transformation is only one vital component of the film. In addition to the vocal tics and a formidable makeup job, Oldman gives Churchill a vulnerability that makes his resolve seem even more brave. He may be staunch in standing up to Hitler, but he’s not delusional. He might emerge from the bathroom “in a state of nature,” but he never loses sight of the burden his office entails.
“Because (Churchill’s) hold on power on power is so precarious, Darkest Hour has an energy that most political dramas don’t possess.”
Wright has an aversion to mundane camera setups and can’t bring himself to simply shoot two or three people talking. For the most part, that’s a virtue here. As his camera flies through Parliament, we get to hear briefly how different factions loathe the new PM for dissimilar reasons. In a few seconds, Wright and McCarten reveal how challenging his task is without bringing the story to a halt. Not many procedural dramas feature sweeping aerial shots, but Wright uses them to keep the the two-hour running time brisk.
Kristin Scott Thomas has some terrific moments as Clementine Churchill, the Prime Minister’s wife who spends part of her time helping others deal with her sometimes abrasive husband and the other portions trying to get him to overcome his own moments of self-doubt. Exploring their relationship could have given Darkest Hour an addition emotional depth, but Scott Thomas’ performance reminds us why the rewind button was invented.
Darkest Hour is a worthy companion to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk because it reveals how difficult it was for the politicians to engineer the earlier film’s valiant rescue. Far too often, the suits have only a fraction of the courage of the soldiers on the ground. In this case, the men facing the beach can be grateful to a pudgy, hard-drinking mumbling fellow who is just as gutsy as they were.
Darkest Hour (2017) Directed by Joe Wright. Written by Anthony McCarten. Starring: Gary Oldman, Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn, Stephen Dillane, Ronald Pickup.
8 out of 10