Hitler and the Nazis are at the gates again. Like dominoes, Europe is falling to Germany’s invasion and it seems like only a matter of time before France falls, too. Meanwhile, England is in crisis as they seek to find a new Prime Minister after Neville Chamberlain. The only person who can potentially create a large coalition of government is Winston Churchill, a man loved by some and loathed by many others. Within this pressure point, Darkest Hour excels, esteeming a man rising from the ashes with conflict meeting him at all sides. But, it’s Gary Oldman’s committed portrayal of the curmudgeon Churchill that deepens the experience and creates a much-needed lynchpin in the process.
The film’s flaws are noticeably few. Some of the scenes with Churchill’s wife doesn’t add much to the story and a couple other scenes feel a little over-the-top and Oscar-baity, but overall it’s a taut, well-paced story with an excellent cast.
Director Joe Wright has made a name for himself within the historical drama genre. Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, and Anna Karenina are all well-regarded by critics and fans alike. It was only when he diverged into fantasy with the Peter Pan prequel, Pan, that things went south for him commercially and critically. With that in mind, Darkest Hour is a nice return to form for the director.
He clearly understands what is required for the genre to work and pushes all the right buttons at all the right times. He sets up the conflict right away on every side and inserts a hero who in hindsight might be considered the right one for the right moment but instead, doesn’t give us that hero right away. Churchill in this story is regarded by his peers as the very last leader England needs. He’s grumpy with a quick temper and constantly wanting war at every turn. To top it all off, his Cicero inspired rhetoric makes his peers uncomfortable and only adds fuel to the fire. It’s a perfect setup that creates a giant ball of tension.
Since most of the narrative follows Churchill during a tumultuous time, a far away villain like Hitler only feels like a dark storm off in the distance rather than an imminent threat. So, the writing does well to focus more on the villains within Churchill’s ranks. While Churchill is banging the drums of war and preparing for an invasion, many of his fellow cabinet members want to resume peace talks with Germany, including Neville Chamberlain and Viscount Halifax. These two, in particular, are the prime villains trying to undermine and scheme against him.
The narrative, however, also finds a way to get the audience behind Churchill even when almost every character other than his wife is against him in some way. Many scenes are fully dedicated to showing the negative opinion people in parliament had of Churchill. It’s difficult to pinpoint why anyone would like Churchill’s character in the beginning other than the audience having keen historical hindsight to guide them. But, by the end, things become clear and Churchill’s hero overcomes the odds and is proven (mostly) victorious.
With a historical drama set primarily on a larger-than-life historical figure like Churchill, Darkest Hour feels a bit like the movie Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg. Movies honed-in on one character almost always require a stellar performance for it to work properly. In Lincoln’s case, Spielberg wisely recruits Daniel Day-Lewis to take up the role and it pays off in spades. Day-Lewis’s performance cements that film as an all-time great even when the narrative drags and becomes mostly about passing a piece of legislation (a topic only Spielberg can somehow make interesting). Day-Lewis’s performance, in other words, is simply mesmerizing.
On the same token, Gary Oldman is to Churchill as Day-Lewis is to Lincoln. Oldman becomes Churchill in word, deed, and fat suit, embodying a difficult World War II leader in a movie that demands it. Even with a lesser performance, the film might have been at least entertaining to watch based on the narrative structure and Wright’s direction but Oldman takes it as far as he can go, making the two people indistinguishable, and sky-rocketing the film to greatness. There’s little doubt Oldman will at least get an Oscar nomination if not the win.
With the Oscars in mind, it needs to be said that Darkest Hour does feel like a finely crafted love-letter to the Academy. It seems like every year, one or two World War II films come along to woo them. This year, both Dunkirk and Darkest Hour look like two very likely Oscar darlings. What separates the two is Dunkirk’s indifference to Darkest Hour’s overwhelming desire. Only time will tell if either win them over.
The story does dive somewhat into Churchill’s personal and home life with both his wife and kids. While his children make brief appearances, his wife takes a more prominent role as a cheerleader and confidant while Churchill is surrounded by enemies on all sides. Her character is a somewhat nice reprieve from the constant conflict he faces, showing he at least has one friend. However, at times she shows up randomly with little to no purpose to the larger plot or story. Sometimes it feels awkward and so out of place it messes up an almost perfect film. It’s not a major flaw, of course, but if anything, a noticeable one.
It shouldn’t even have to be mentioned that history buffs who love World War II will happily devour Darkest Hour, licking their fingers afterward, discussing its accuracy on the way home. But, even for the uninformed, the casual historical drama lovers, or someone who just likes a good drama, Darkest Hour is a must see movie for the well-written narrative, the solid direction, and Gary Oldman’s outstanding performance as Churchill.
Photos courtesy of: Focus Features.
Darkest Hour excels at almost everything it sets out to do. While it might feel a tad like Oscar-bait with a few unnecessary scenes in the story, Gary Oldman's performance, the taut screenplay and solid direction from Joe Wright cements it as an excellent period piece.