A Historical drama
Written by Anthony McCarten
Directed by Joe Wright
Dunkirk showed us a soldier’s point of view of the disaster-turned-victory that saved England from Nazi conquest. Darkest Hour covers much of the same history, but from the point of the nation’s leader – the newly-appointed Winston Churchill.
We go into this rousing story of British resolve feeling considerable suspense, even though we know it will have a happy ending (at a horrible cost). After all, Churchill had no way of knowing for sure that he would beat Hitler. He didn’t even know if he would still be Prime Minister next week.
The film concentrates on one month: May, 1940. It starts with Neville Chamberlain resigning as prime minister and Churchill taking his place. Hitler’s army seems invincible. France, England’s only ally, is about to capitulate. Almost the entire British army is trapped on the mainland. Chamberlain and other politicians are pushing for a peace treaty. (Oddly, Churchill never brings up the fact that Hitler broke the last treaty he made with Chamberlain.)
Gary Oldman gives a splendid performance as Churchill; expect him to be a major Oscar contender. He doesn’t just play the heroic leader that was Churchill’s public persona. Oldman shows the scared, uncertain, private man suddenly responsible for the lives of thousands of soldiers – and the entire nation. The performance is all the more remarkable considering the layers of latex needed to make Oldman look like Churchill. You only recognize the actor by the eyes.
(To be fair, even if Oldman had given a so-so performance, he would still be a major Oscar contender. He’s British, he plays an actual historical figure, and he disappears into the role. Those things count during Oscar season.)
Ben Mendelsohn gives a strong performance as King George VI, the same character that won Colin Firth the Oscar for The King’s Speech. Mendelsohn’s speech impediment is far less noticeable than Firth’s. He merely pauses at unusual moments, as if he’s struggling to not stammer. That was the proper way to handle the problem, since Darkest Hour is set at a time when the king had better control of his disability. Also, this is not a movie about the stammer.
Kristin Scott Thomas gives an excellent performance as Churchill’s wife, and Lily James is also fine as his secretary. After Oldman, James probably gets the most screen time, as she turns from being a frightened rookie to the great man’s sounding board.
Like all narrative films based on historical events, Darkest Hour is fiction, and one of the least likely scenes is one of the best. On a whim, Churchill takes the Underground. Of course, everyone in the subway car recognizes him. As he talks to them, he realizes that regular people, unlike many in Parliament, are ready and willing to fight to the finish.
This is not one of those Beautiful Olde England Movies. It’s mostly smoky rooms and a very crowded London. Most of the time it feels claustrophobic. Wright and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel often place the camera high up, shooting straight down, giving the sense that a bird, or God, is looking down on these important events.
Churchill was no saint. His romantic view of empire (which is not mentioned in this film) caused considerable harm. But when it came to leading his country in fighting an existential threat, he was clearly the man for the job.