Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Joe Wright
Stars: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Ben Mendelsohn, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane, Samuel West, Adrian Rawlings, David Strathairn.
Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour is the second high profile film this year to explore the controversial war time record of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who has been regarded as one of the greatest Britons ever in history. We first saw Brian Cox play him in Churchill, which was set around the lead up to the D-Day invasion of France, in which Churchill was consumed by doubts and misgivings.
Now Gary Oldman steps into the role in this dramatization that looks at his first month in office, the battles he faced with his colleagues in the war room, and three key speeches he delivered that inspired the country to fight on, including his famous “We will never surrender” speech. And this is the best of the two though thanks to a good script, solid direction and a commanding lead performance from Oldman.
The film is set in May 1940. Hitler has conquered much of Europe. Churchill had begrudgingly assumed the mantle of leadership after it became clear that the policy of appeasement of his predecessor Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup, from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, etc) had failed. Churchill had to deal with the political machinations of his cabinet colleagues, in particular the scheming foreign secretary Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) who had his sights set on the office and who still urged the path of negotiation and appeasement. King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) had preferred Halifax, but he gradually comes to respect Churchill, his resolve and his uncompromising views and his ability to unite the British people behind him.
The film also touches on Operation Dynamo, the dramatic rescue of some 300,000 British soldiers trapped on the beaches at Dunkirk (and it parallels some of the events that were the central focus of Christopher Nolan’s recent film).
In his career Oldman has played a number of real life characters, and he has never delivered a dull performance, but his powerful and nuanced performance as Winston Churchill ranks as one of his finest moments. He completely disappears into the character and gives us a different take on Churchill than did Brian Cox. Buried under layers of make-up and prosthetics that took four hours a day to apply Oldman bears a strong resemblance to the pudgy and irascible Churchill, and his commanding performance dominates the film. Kudos to Japanese make-up artist Kazuhiro Tsuji, who was lured out of retirement to work on this film. This is a tour de force performance from Oldman, who delivers the kind of scenery chewing performance that the role demands, and he relishes the opportunity. He portrays Churchill as a mercurial and overbearing character, but he also reveals his vulnerabilities and his flaws. He also brings some welcome touches of mischievous humour to the material as he captures his rude, abrasive nature and his eccentricities. He also captures his unique gift for oratory.
Screenwriter Anthony McCarten (who also scripted the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory Of Everything) takes some liberties with the facts for dramatic purposes. There is even one entertaining sequence in which Churchill takes a ride on the London Underground to gauge the mood of the people, even though it is hard to believe that something like this happened.
The film is heavily dialogue-driven, but Wright and his collaborators certainly manage to bring a sense of tension and drama to the material. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Inside Lleweyn Davis, etc) uses sepia tones to effectively capture the era, and a variety of camera angles and close-ups as well as a desaturated colour palette to heighten the drama. Wright’s regular production designer Sarah Greenwood (Atonement, etc) captures the look and feel of the streets of war time London as well as the claustrophobic basement war room where much of the action takes place.
Wright has assembled a strong ensemble cast to flesh out the characters. Kristin Scott Thomas is strong as Churchill’s supportive but often frustrated and world-weary wife Clementine, and the scenes she shares with Goldman are filled with a sense of warmth and good humour that temper the darker tone. Lily James (from Baby Driver, etc) brings some emotional weight to her role as Elizabeth Layton, the beleaguered secretary/typist who eventually earns Churchill’s respect and confidence. Mendelsohn is terrific and brings gravitas and dignity to his role as King George VI. Pickup, who replaced the late John Hurt, brings a vulnerability and starchy quality to his performance as the ailing Chamberlain. David Strathairn provides the voice of President Roosevelt during a long-distance phone call between Churchill and Washington.
Darkest Hour is both a history lesson and a complex character study. But this is Oldman’s film from start to finish and he is incredibly effective, capturing this charismatic and iconic figure and his slouched posture, his mannerisms and speech inflections. He’s already got his hands on a Golden Globe, surely the Oscar cannot be far behind.