During the early days of World War II, the fate of Western Europe hangs on the newly-appointed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who must decide whether to negotiate with Hitler, or fight on against incredible odds.
Winston Churchill has been played on screen more times than you could count, yet there probably hasn’t been a definitive portrayal until now. Brian Cox had a good stab at it in last year’s similar biopic ‘Churchill’ and John Lithgow won awards for his display on TV’s ‘The Crown’, but Gary Oldman is better than both, and he’s likely to win a lot of awards for this display. He’s a particularly hard character to master, easy to caricature but difficult to fully embody, yet Oldman has the essence of the man from the outset and it is a real tour de force of a performance. The film itself is a solid enough retelling of his early days as Prime Minister, encompassing the Dunkirk evacuation and the political jostling within his own party, but this is Oldman’s film and it wouldn’t have been nearly as captivating without him.
The film narrows in on the month of May in 1940, a pivotal period during the Second World War when much of Western Europe fell to the Germans, leading to 300,000 UK troops becoming stranded in Dunkirk (as seen in more visceral detail last year in Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’) and Neville Chamberlain’s already precarious position as UK Prime Minister becoming untenable. There’s a small period of table setting that allows ‘Darkest Hour’ to establish that Winston Churchill was not a popular choice to replace Chamberlain within his own Conservative party, seen as a maverick warmonger with a drinking problem (not entirely untrue), with Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) the preferred choice to replace Chamberlain, but this is history and we all know what happened. Throughout the rest of the film, we move between different conversations Churchill has with King Edward (Ben Mendelsohn, always great), his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott-Thomas, underused) and his war cabinet, with all of these interactions serving to dive into what made this enigmatic man tick, whilst also depicting the differing viewpoints on how to deal with Germany.
The film has one major misstep towards the conclusion as it depicts an interaction Churchill has on an underground train, which feels shoehorned in and seems to have been purely embellished for the screen. It comes across as patronising and untrue to the type of man that Churchill was and it’s particularly unnecessary as I suspect the vast majority of people watching ‘Darkest Hour’ will be intelligent enough to accept and respect Churchill’s good points and his wartime achievements without needing his ‘man of the people’ credentials hammered home in such an unsubtle manner. Beyond that glaring bad point, ‘Darkest Hour’ is mostly well directed, utilising theatrical techniques to bring the historical drama to life and it’s particularly exhilarating as Oldman’s Churchill goes toe to toe with his detractors in dialogue heavy sequences.
‘Darkest Hour’ is a solidly crafted film enhanced by a stunning performance from Gary Oldman, which was more than enough to overcome any narrative missteps and I really enjoyed it.
Directed By: Joe Wright
Starring: Gary Oldman, Ben Mendelsohn, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane, Nicholas Jones, Richard Lumsden, Jeremy Child and Samuel West