STARRING: Gary Oldman, Ben Mendelsohn, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane, Nicholas Jones, Richard Lumsden, Jeremy Child and Samuel West
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.
May 1940. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain is forced to resign from the opposition Labour Party for being too weak to protect national security against Nazi Germany. Chamberlain chooses his successor, the only man that who other parties will support….Winston Churchill. As Nazi Germany moves across Western Europe, invading Belgium and Holland, with the threat of invasion imminent, Churchill must handle a skeptical King, opposition within his own party and an unprepared public as he most explore the idea of negotiating a peace treaty or rally a nation to fight for its freedom against potential tyranny.
Darkest Hour looks at Winston Churchill’s few weeks as Prime Minister after the resignation of Neville Chamberlain. Not only does Churchill have to deal with the imminent threat of the Nazis invading the country, he also has to plan an evacuation of the British army trapped in Dunkirk and handle opposition from within his own party as well as outside of it.
Joe Wright is a really good director that is in his element when he’s directing a period drama (see his Pride and Prejudice adaptation and Atonement as evidence of that) and after his misfire with Pan a few years ago, he’s done a great job here with Darkest Hour. His shots are so precise, especially when it comes to the use of lighting. Whether it be Churchill is summoned by King George VI at Buckingham Palace, or Churchill addresses everyone at Parliament, there’s only a few glimpses of light that creeps through the shadows and in one particular scene in which he addresses the public via radio, his face is covered in red from a light from the broadcasting equipment that makes the dialogue within the scene much more effective. While Wright gave us scenes involving Dunkirk in Atonement over a decade ago, here used as a political ploy for Lord Halifax and Neville Chamberlain to out Churchill if he doesn’t refuses to negotiate peace with Nazi Germany. Chamberlain steps down as the opposition won’t accept him as a wartime leader and not only that, but he’s ill with cancer. Meanwhile Chamberlain’s advisors wanted Lord Halifax to become the next Prime Minister but he declined. Instead he lures in the background, on a quest to secure peace for the good of the nation and determined to prevent Churchill from taking them to war. Of the supporting cast involved, it’s the two actresses that make the biggest impact. Kristin Scott Thomas is really good as Winston’s supportive wife Clementine, who is able to break through his tough exterior and give him the guidance he needs to become a leader for the people. The other role is Winston’s new secretary Elizabeth Layton, played by the underrated Lily James, who conveys much more emotion through her expressions that any line or two of dialogue would do. The score in particular from Dario Marianelli compliments the pace of the film very well and the cinematography from Bruno Delbonnel is really good as well. As for the ‘main attraction’ of this film, I can honestly that Gary Oldman truly delivers a great performance as Winston Churchill. David Malinowski done a great job in the makeup department as make Oldman look like Churchill as much as possible, but Oldman is a force of nature when Churchill needs to be, particularly when his back is against the wall as crisis after crisis piles up, from the army being trapped at Dunkirk to his own members looking to out him in the War Cabinet. He brings a certain amount of levity to the role, such as his reaction to using the V sign the wrong way and in one particular scene after he concedes to being open to possible negotiation with Nazi Germany, he’s seeming in a room alone, he’s stuck in a trance as the literal weight of a nation rests on his shoulders.
As great as Gary Oldman’s performance is in Darkest Hour, the film itself feels somewhat…formulaic. The script, written by Anthony McCarten who earned an Oscar nomination for adapting The Theory of Everything, is great when it comes to the dialogue, but with over a two hour runtime, the film struggled to keep my interest in the middle as we plotted through the initial news of the Nazis advancing into France, to the launch of the civilian ships to rescue the soldiers at Dunkirk. There’s one pivotal point in the film where a Brigade in Calais is used as a distraction to the enemy whilst the soldiers in Dunkirk were evacuated, essentially being used as a suicide attack, is given major importance in the War Cabinet but it didn’t feel like the actual weight of that decision was given the proper impact in showcasing the Calais scene. The final act has a sequence that involves Churchill taking the Underground on the way to Parliament, talking to the public along the way about their view of whether to agree to peace under a dictatorship or fight for freedom of which could result in the country in ruins. In theory the scene could work for some, but for me it was too cheesy for me and felt out of place in the film. I’m still trying to contemplate if Lord Halifax and Chamberlain in the script were trying to be conveyed as men looking to save the people from being spared of bloodshed from the Nazis, because in execution it’s as if the film is making them out to be traitors, particularly Halifax. Why did he not want to take the Prime Minister position? Was it fear of what history would look at him as if he was in charge when he attempt to agree peace with the Nazis? The film doesn’t really dive much into answering them questions.
Gary Oldman gives a powerhouse performance that is sure to finally earn him an Oscar from the Academy Awards this year. Darkest Hour will in time probably be used as a double screening companion piece for Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and that’s not a negative against the film, it’s just that they compliment each other perfectly. 6/10