Cast: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ronald Pickup, Ben Mendelsohn
Director: Joe Wright
Writer: Anthony McCarten
It’s interesting that Darkest Hour ended up coming out the same year as Dunkirk. Both films take place at exactly the same time and are more or less centred on the exact same event, the defeat and evacuation of the British army in Nazi-occupied France, but both from very different perspectives. Dunkirk takes us right into the action in the most astoundingly visceral way and is so focused on the emotions of the soldiers in that moment that it says practically nothing about the larger historical context. Darkest Hour reveals some of that context, detailing the crisis in leadership that emerged in the wake of what looked like imminent defeat and the dire mood that dominated Parliament. Unlike Nolan’s quasi-silent epic, this story is told not in images but in dialogue as it directly engages with the larger meaning of the events that unfolded which in Dunkirk had been simply implied. The way that these two films inform each other is fascinating and, the more I think about the sensational, intense experience of watching Dunkirk, the less impressive I find Darkest Hour to be.
It is 1940 and Great Britain is at war with Germany. The disgraced Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) has resigned as Prime Minister for his failure to contend with Hitler’s ambition and a new Tory leader must be found who will have the support of both the people and the opposition party. Chamberlain’s preferred successor Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) rejects the offer and so Parliament turns to Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman), a divisive figure with a poor war record but the only man who understood the threat Hitler posed from the start. Thus King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), despite his personal dislike of the man, invites Churchill to form a war government. Churchill gets to work immediately, forming a war cabinet that includes Halifax, Chamberlain, and the “sheep in sheep’s clothing” Anthony Eden (Samuel West) and making clear that he has no intention whatsoever of negotiating peace terms with Germany. As the situation in France worsens and the party’s confidence in their leader decreases, Churchill feels more and more the weight of history on his shoulders.
In the role that will almost certainly win him an Oscar, Oldman delivers a fine performance indeed. Working through make-up and prosthetics, Oldman is as forceful and expressive as he’s ever been and is able to build a compelling portrait of the man. Before becoming Prime Minister, Churchill was a contentious figure, disliked by many for his controversial opinions, uncouth humour, and bad judgement, particularly with Gallipoli and India. The man may very well never have won the support to become Prime Minister had he not happened to be absolutely right about Hitler at this crucial time. Oldman thus embraces the ‘100 Greatest Britons’ poll winner’s boorish, impetuous side and brings much humanity to an unrefined figure who effectively lucked into the highest office in government and suddenly held the fate of the British Empire in his hands. The weight of the responsibility is never lost on him, but there is a question of whether Churchill’s decision to fight on to the bitter end is truly in the people’s best interest or if he’s allowing his passions and prejudices to drive Britain into ruin. Oldman displays all the strength, wit, and vulnerabilities of Churchill’s character and is more than worthy of the acclaim he has received.
Sadly the rest of the film isn’t as strong. Wright is able to convey a definite sense of urgency and immediacy to the few days where Britain’s fate hung delicately in the balance, but not in a way that felt truthful to me. The film is historical fiction, so naturally liberties have to be taken in the interest of creating an engaging, efficient drama. Accuracy is therefore all but irrelevant, what really matters is truthfulness; the events don’t have to perfectly match what actually happened as long as we believe in what it shows us instead. Darkest Hour didn’t work for me in this regard because the story often felt contrived to me. Through stilted, on-the-nose dialogue and certain scenes that felt theatrical in their arrangement and performance, I never honestly believed that I was there the way I did with Dunkirk. Even allowing for the fact that Darkest Hour was not made with the intention of being as cinematically overwhelming as the Nolan film, the film just felt too much like a reproduction to me than it did a story. The one scene where this is most apparent is when Churchill takes a ride on the London Underground and talks to some of the people, a preposterous scene that feels as cheap as it feels fake.
It is a competently told story at any rate. There are enough decent performances to support Oldman in his tour-de-force from Kristin Scott Thomas as Churchill’s supportive wife Clemmie, to Dillane as the calculating Halifax whose pragmatism serves as a foil to Churchill’s idealism, to Lily James as the determined, doe-eyed secretary. The film also does a pretty good job of highlighting what exactly it was that made Churchill not just a great leader but also the right leader for Britain at this time. His greatest asset as Prime Minister was not his intelligence, strength, or authority, it was his charisma and the film places a strong emphasis on the critical role his rhetoric played in building the morale of the British people. While I don’t think the way the film did this always worked (e.g. in that Underground scene), it was fine when it did. There is also a convincing sense of sincerity to the character, in large part due to Oldman’s acting. The seriousness with which he treats his task and the passion with which he delivers his speeches convinces you that this is a man who will absolutely give his “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” to see Britain through this dark hour. Dunkirk this film is not, but Darkest Hour is fine for what it is.