Winston Churchill has gone down in history as a titan, a man who threw an entire nation on his back and carried it through some of its most difficult days. The picture offered of him in “The Darkest Hour,” the latest film by Joe Wright, is of a very human man, but one certainly convinced of his rightness. It is a movie in which everyone delivers a solid performance, but much in the way that Churchill threw England on his back, Gary Oldman throws the film on his.
As portrayed by Oldman, Churchill is a man of vice, of foibles. He is denigrated by other members of his party. He is viewed as a Machiavellian schemer. He is a man who spouts ideas as if they were water, but who also manages to occasionally be right. He is charismatic and smart and imperfect.
Through the years, Gary Oldman has created memorable character after memorable character, changing everything about himself to suitably disappear into whomever he is portraying. He does so again here. Oldman, and it is unquestionably not just his work but also that of those who did his prosthetics, hair, and make-up that makes this happen, is utterly unrecognizable. He is Winston Churchill and he is more than compelling in the role. “The Darkest Hour” is Oldman’s movie and he is magnificent within it.
Perhaps though one of the things which impresses most about the movie is that Oldman stands a cut above everyone else, and everyone else is still wonderful. Whether it’s Ben Mendelsohn’s King George VI, Kristin Scott Thomas’ Clemmie Churchill, Stephen Dillane’s Viscount Halifax, Ronald Pickup’s Neville Chamberlain, or Lily James’ Elizabeth Layton, these actors are each sunk into their characters in beautiful fashion. The on screen creations are, to a person, human beings and full of strengths and weaknesses and charm and guile and all the little things that make up actual individuals. Next to Oldman, it is perhaps Mendelsohn who best exhibits this, as his King of England shows curiosity and fear and bemusement surrounding Churchill and the state of his nation. Other movies have offered up this particular King in fine fashion, but Mendelsohn makes it his own.
Of course, while “The Darkest Hour” is a look at an individual, and a good look at that, it is also a tale of England at the outset of the Second World War. It is about the nation coming to grips with the Nazis sweeping through Europe at an alarming rate and about the political machinations in England at the time and the recognition that even after the Germans invaded France many didn’t quite know what to believe of Hitler and his actions.
The easy comparison to make this year is that “The Darkest Hour” functions as a companion piece to “Dunkirk.” While the latter is entirely about the operation to get British soldiers out of France before the entirety of the army is wiped away by Nazi forces, “The Darkest Hour” offers up the work on the home front to make the escape happen. While scenes of war may have a tendency to overshadow those of a political nature, Nolan’s film doesn’t overshadow Wright’s – they make for a wonderful two-hander.
It is completely fascinating to watch Churchill know that members of his War Cabinet would subvert his authority and to work out how to maneuver them, both in terms of what will be best for the country he leads as well as what will be best for himself on a political level. And, while “The Darkest Hour” sometimes show his skills to be preternatural, it makes no bones about his having his fair share of faults/blind spots.
“The Darkest Hour” leaves the viewer with a wonderful impression of Churchill the man, but at the same time makes them want to know more. The movie is set during this very brief moment in time—this single crisis—and while Churchill may have risen to the pinnacle of power during this crisis, he was on the scene both before and after. It is not that “The Darkest Hour” feels incomplete, just those watching will want the movie to run another couple of hours (at minimum) to take the viewer through the Blitz.
I do not mean to give short shrift here to Wright or Anthony McCarten’s screenplay. The entire affair is an edge-of-your-seat one, with both dark moments and light. It is a brisk—but not rushed—125 minute movie, which is no small feat, and individual scenes are beautifully crafted.
“The Darkest Hour” is powerful, wonderful, filmmaking.
photo credit: Focus Features