Darkest Hour Review
Our first introduction to Winston Churchill in Joe Wright's Darkest Hour is in a dimly lit room, where he lights his infamous cigar and we see for the first time; a beacon of light and hope in the dark abyss that was on the brink of consuming us all. It is a perfect way to introduce a character we are all too familiar with and makes for a lasting impact, and as character introductions go, it is certainly one of the most memorable I have seen for a long time. Many actors have donned the famous bowler hat and dickie bow, and chewed on a cigar to inhabit Mr. Churchill, especially recently, ranging from Michael Gambon in Churchill's Secret (2016), Brian Cox in Churchill (2017) to John Lithgow in The Crown. However, Gary Oldman seems born to play this role, he presents us with a particularly convincing depiction of the man who suffered from bouts of depression, and who many found insufferable to deal with.
The film begins with Britain in desperate need of a leader to put its trust in to help avoid invasion from Nazi Germany. It is made clear that Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin (Ronald Pickup) is not the right man for the job, and the opposition is demanding a replacement by another successor from his own party (the Conservatives). Chamberlain favours Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) who is also the King George VI's (Ben Mendelsohn) choice for Prime Minister. However, the opposition want a certain man, one who is considered eccentric and unpredictable by his own party, and that man is Winston Churchill.
Churchill is not an easy man to get behind; let alone work for, which is something his new secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) soon discovers during his (and her) early days in 10 Downing Street. However, with the help of his patient and understanding wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), Churchill begins to adopt the right persona which will give the British public something to believe in. Although, with the King and Halifax calling for peace talks with Herr Hitler, it's not the public's trust that Churchill must win. And, soon he and the entire nation are facing their biggest crisis yet, the evacuation of Dunkirk.
There is simply so much to talk about in regards to this film, that it’s hard to pin-point exactly where to start. It's a thrill ride, with moments so tense that it leaves you praying for Churchill and Britain to make it, despite knowing the outcome. I would strongly recommend watching Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017) as a double-bill with Darkest Hour, as it helps to show the background to the evacuation. People who may have been put off by Dunkirk should be reassured that the narrative of Darkest Hour is very linear and easy to follow, that is not to say that the plot is simplistic nor a criticism. It is simply an observation that the two films serve each other yet are different but both equally brilliant.
This is one of Oldman’s finest performances of his career, he is not simply playing Churchill in the film, he has somehow become him. He is hypnotising to watch, you cannot take your eyes off the screen for fear you might miss something. Credit for Oldman's appearance must go to Kazuhiro Tsuji’s make-up which buries Oldman under prosthetics, transforms him completely and enhances his performance. For which he deserves all the praise he has been receiving. 2017 has been a tremendous year for acting, but without a doubt Oldman’s Churchill is the strongest contender for the Oscar, because simply no other actor has managed to take on a role of such a famous individual and capture the essence of the person’s personality and identity so implicitly, whilst somehow allowing their own individuality to shine through.
Oldman’s scenes with Scott Thomas are wonderful and the two compliment each other perfectly, with some moving moments which help capture the complexities of marriage and the struggles of being married to a man like Churchill. She seems to capture the reserved elegance of the upper-class but offers us a glimpse of the troubled and concerned woman beside the man. Churchill may have the troubles of the world on his shoulders but his wife, Clemmie, has the weight of the man’s personality on hers. The other supporting actors deliver strong performances, especially Ben Mendelsohn who seems to be having an absolute riot as King George, and his interactions with Churchill make for some amusing moments.
There are some grumbles to be had with the film, there is one scene towards the end that seems very forced and sentimental, which may be off-putting to some, but it helps promote a unity which is needed more than ever. Throughout the film, Joe Wright’s direction is superb, and his choice to shoot certain scenes with high angles help create this overwhelming feeling, which really helps in making us realise just how small we all are, even someone like Churchill. From the view of a bird soaring across the skies of the world, we all look the same, dots on the landscape. This is a powerful message, and in turbulent times the fact that we have endured in the past and given some of the situations many of us find ourselves in, we should take note of this.