Joe Wright directs the superb Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, in what turns out to be Mr. Oldman’s finest hour. Interestingly, Mr. Oldman’s performance is the strongest element in an otherwise watered down narrative.
The beginning of World War II has ravaged the European continent. Forces on both sides of the fight are entrenched, and neither side has enough supplies or men to wage a protracted battle. In England’s darkest hour, an unlikely and disliked Winston Churchill (Oldman) is summoned by the King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) to become Prime Minister when Neville Chamberlain’s (Ronald Pickup) foreign policy of diplomacy fails. Churchill’s first action is to show a sign of force, but he must buy time to get troops with which to fight a losing battle.
Anthony McCarten’s superb script distills events down to their simplest form, focusing on Churchill’s inadequacies as well as the opposition’s distaste for his warlike appetites, something that gets him into trouble, time and again.
At odds and constantly questioning Churchill’s authority is Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), the Foreign Secretary. Halifax believed in Chamberlain’s efforts at peace with Hitler, and pushed Churchill in that direction. McCarten’s script and Wright’s superb direction work wonders on the tensions between the two men, especially when they are ensconced in the War Cabinet room or in Parliament.
To wit, he had support at home from his wife, Clementine (Kristen Scott Thomas). She was as much his wife as she was his confidant. To quell his nerves, he took to drinking and smoking cigars. Ms. Thomas’s performance is admirable. The way the character is written here, she is relegated into the background to give Mr. Oldman as much space to breathe.
I suspect that Clementine is less of a character here in order to give Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) more to do. As his secretary, Elizabeth ultimately became his anchor, grounding Churchill so that he could go on and give his most powerful speeches.
Bruno Delbonno’s cinematography is effective, to a fault. Much of the film is shot in darkened spaces, filled with acrid smoke. This required the use of lighting which became distracting. Numerous close-ups were also utilized to heighten the tension and frustration, which early on were effective, but they also became distracting as the dialogue conveyed most of the tension.
Wright went to lengths to create numerous character moments that form the basis of the film’s narrative. Moments between Oldman and Ms. Thomas are exquisite; the best moments are between Churchill and King George, building Churchill’s confidence that he was doing the right thing. Oldman did wonders with the moments where he was alone, and in public. The moments that exemplify the filmic character of Churchill are when he is dictating his speeches to Ms. Layton. Between drunken stupors and bouts of vicious verbosity, the superb Oldman is just fun to watch open up.
The biggest hurdle is with the third act. We know, inevitably how the story is going to end. However, the over dramatized nature of the third act pulls you out of the story, completely.
Mr. Wright, whether intentional or not, gave us a rally cry to the troubled state of modern politics. The irony is the sequence that was most troublesome is also the very thing that we need from our politicians today. This isn’t a political lecture, as much as it is a show of support for Mr. Wright’s film.
The Darkest Hour truly represented Churchill’s finest hour as he rallied the nation behind what must have seemed like a hopeless cause. Following the civilian retrieval of his troops on the Dunkirk Beachhead, he slipped back into the same obscurity from which he came, the fate of the world war raged on for a further five years. Thus a footnote, his courage in the face of adversity on many fronts should give us strength and should not be forgotten.
Now in theaters, Darkest Hour is rated PG-13 by the MPAA.