Director: Joe Wright
Writer: Anthony McCarten
Cast: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn, Lily James
Review by Cameron Kieffer
Darkest Hour seems like one of those films that exist purely to win awards. Certainly, if you’d seen or heard anything about the film, it was likely praise for Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Winston Churchill, a role that required more than just vocal mimicry and mannerisms. However, the movie isn’t simply a showcase for Oldman; it’s also a fascinating character study of one of history’s most interesting figures, and how his inner struggles would ultimately lead him (and his country) to victory.
Much like last summer’s Dunkirk, this film focuses on a smaller aspect of the epic narrative that was World War II, and in fact Darkest Hour works very well as a companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s war movie, both taking place in 1940 and referencing many of the other film’s events. When we first meet Churchill, he is in bed, drinking, smoking, and working, his penchant for multi-tasking on full display, as well as many of his own personal quirks. This is clearly not the type of man who should be leading a country, a feeling that is shared among many of his constituents. The previous prime minister has been sacked and while Churchill is the most likely candidate to succeed him, he’s not the favorite by any means.
Our POV character is Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), who has just been appointed as Churchill’s new secretary, a position she nearly departs after mere moments during one of her new bosses loud and insulting outbursts. After finding comfort in the kind words of Clementine Churchill (Kristin Scott Thomas), who goes to soothe the savage beast that her husband tends to be, Elizabeth remains at her post and eventually gains his trust and confidence. Once Churchill accepts his new role as Prime Minister, the film follows him over the course of only a few weeks as he struggles with opposition from Pariliament, his own stubborness and doubts, as well as the growing strength of Germany and the Nazi party.
As the narrative moves forward and the war intensifies, the toll these events have on the new Prime Minister are evident as Oldman portrays a character who goes from having the utmost confidence to doubting himself and everything he wants for his country. The usually quick-thinking and eloquent Churchill grows weak and agitated, his stammer becoming worse and worse until he can hardly speak at all. One of the film’s most powerful scenes takes place when Churchill literally goes underground to meet with common folk and converse with them about what they would want from him, rather than making the decision for them. It’s a heart-warming scene and even includes a joke about how a woman’s baby resembles him. “All babies look like me,” he says. It’s funny cuz it’s true!
Known for other period pieces like Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, Joe Wright directs the film with a stylistic flair that enhances the proceedings, while never distracting us from the narrative. Wright includes a great deal of smaller character beats that enhance and humanize Churchill and those around him, and even add a surprising amount of fun and humor to might otherwise be another boring bio-pic. Many of these smaller moments would also influence some his most bigger decisions and ultimately impact England’s position in the war. The film’s score, by Dario Marianelli, is both haunting and whimsical, with a lighter, more classical feel, as opposed to Dunkirk’s loud, dialogue-drowning hums.
While the writing and technical aspects of the film are done incredibly well, it should come as no surprise that the film’s greatest strength is in its cast. As Elizabeth, Lily James portrays Churchill’s secretary with a vulnerability and thoughtfulness that is both subtle and incredibly believable. Her mannerisms and expressions reveal her admiration and respect for Churchill in a way that needs not be expressed in words. Likewise, Kristin Scott Thomas makes the most of her role as Mrs. Churchill, as a loving, supportive wife who accepts that their family must always come second. She and Oldman have charming chemistry together, reveling in a relationship that is not without some strain but never leads one to doubt their affection for one another.
This is, however, very much Gary Oldman’s film and he absolutely owns his role as the boisterous, cigar-chomping Churchill. He plays the part with such gravitas, painting a portrait of a man with a larger-than-life persona without ever appearing like a caricature. It’s such an earnest performance, ironic considering this is Oldman at his most indistinguishable. Hidden underneath a great deal of prosthetics, Oldman’s eyes and voice are the only things that give him away. His imitation of Churchill is uncanny but rather than lose himself in the part, he retains just enough of his own voice to make the performance his own. It’s an incredible portrayal of an incredible man and he deserves every award he gets nominated for.
Darkest Hour Blu-ray Special Features:
- Into Darkest Hour
- Gary Oldman: Becoming Churchill
- Feature Commentary with Director Joe Wright
See it! The movie has just enough humor and style to elevate it above a normal biopic and Gary Oldman’s performance is exactly why award shows exist. The man is a treasure and this may very will be his masterpiece.
Available on Digital + VOD now and Blu-Ray / DVD on February 27th.