In 1940, as Hitler’s Nazi forces spread their aggressive campaign of terror across Europe, England was just beginning to reckon with the failed policy of appeasement. Hitler could not be dissuaded in his ambitions for global dominance. Neville Chamberlin would soon be ousted as Prime Minister as war with Germany was an imminent threat to the British isle. His replacement, though now celebrated by history, was a curious choice in Winston Churchill, a larger than life figure whose professional career had be marred by disasters such as the failure at Gallipoli. Now that tumultuous period during which Churchill ascended to the leadership of a beleaguered nation is the subject of Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour. Led by an astounding performance by Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour is a tale of finding hope amidst hopelessness and how one unusual leader was able to rally a nation towards an unexpected victory.
In the House of Commons, Neville Chamberlin (Ronald Pickup) is nearing the end of his tenure. His attempts to slow down Hitler’s war machine have failed mightily and his political allies rally around their comrade in search of his successor. Many in the party want Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) to take the role of Prime Minister, but sensing the fraught nature of the office with war potentially on the horizon declines. There is only one man whom both sides of the aisle would find acceptable for the position of Prime Minster, Winston Churchill (Oldman). A life of public service has prepared Churchill for this moment. However, his past, including the infamous failure of Gallipoli, leave Churchill with his fair share of detractors, including King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn). With his own self-doubt and voracious appetites, Winston can only truly count on the support of his loving wife Clementine (Kristen Scott Thomas). Though war is imminent, Chamberlin’s allies in Parliament aren’t completely sure that every avenue has been exhausted and urge Churchill to continue diplomatic measures with the Nazi regime even as their forces are invading France. Soon Churchill and the War Department is confronted with the direst situation yet with hundreds of thousands of troops stranded on the shores of Dunkirk. When all seems lost, a weary nation turns its eyes to Winston Churchill.
There are few filmmakers with the ability to convey the political wheeling and dealing behind the scenes into compelling cinema, but Joe Wright is able to craft lively moments with precise camera movements from cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel and witty script from Anthony McCarten. It would’ve been so easy to turn this story into an austere movie that is dry and utilitarian, but Wright keeps the film vibrant and compelling even when it’s two politicians scheming with failed plots to force Churchill from office. Darkest Hour is about a war in a sense but the film rarely takes us to the battlefield, but when it does Wright dives in with cinematic aplomb.
The real reason to see Darkest Hour is the amazing performance by Gary Oldman, who is likely to earn Oscar gold with this phenomenal performance. Buried under layers of prosthetic makeup, Oldman is practically unrecognizable as he fully transforms into Churchill, always with a large cigar, glass of whiskey, and a penchant for mumbling. Oldman portrays Churchill as a man of civic duty and a bit of arrogance to shield his self-doubt. He is simultaneously dignified and defiant. McCarten’s screenplay captures the dry wit that was one of Churchill’s defining traits, all of which allows the film to cut its tension and give the audience a bit of a respite from the talk of an impending war with the Nazis. While Darkest Hour is a celebration of Churchill and his sterling leadership, it doesn’t shy away from some of his uglier characteristics, such as a sense of entitlement, a temper, and misogynistic streak. The culmination of everything is an honest portrait of an incredible and important figure in history that doesn’t seek to excuse his faults in order to craft a sterling portrait of simple hagiography.
There are some rough spots to Darkest Hour. You’re led to believe that Lily James is going to have a much more significant role as Churchill’s new secretary Elizabeth Layton, but the film quickly loses track of her and the character’s importance diminishes over time. Personally, I would have liked to have seen more time with Gary Oldman’s Churchill and Kristen Scott Thomas’ Clementine. Their relationship is fascinating one and could’ve use a couple more scenes to provide it with a bit more depth.
Darkest Hour rounds out the year’s most coincidentally timed trilogy. It’s the third film this year, all of which are excellent, concerned with the events of Dunkirk (the others being Dunkirk and Their Finest). Gary Oldman delivers some of the best work of his illustrious career and Joe Wright once again proves that he’s one of the most gifted directors working today. More importantly, Darkest Hour is a desperately needed film to be injected in our divisive political landscape. (There was a time when conservative politicians were unequivocal in their condemnation of Nazis. Who knew?) Sometimes civilizations are faced with a threat that is greater than simple partisan bickering. Sometimes compromise is not the solution. Sometimes a leader who has made mistakes and learned from them is greater than the leader who only believes in his own infallibility. And sometimes, just sometimes, you have to go through the darkest moment to truly see the light on the other side.