Updated: Feb 5, 2020
In May of 1940, the United Kingdom was under attack from the Nazis and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) was stepping down. After the man most desired for the job, Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane, who played Stannis on HBO’s Game of Thrones), declined it, the only choice became cantankerous Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman, a Best Actor Oscar nominee in 2012 for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). Darkest Hour recounts the tumultuous beginning to Churchill’s tenure as Prime Minister, mainly focusing on his disagreements with his own government appointees as they try to decide how best to deal with the encroaching Nazi assault.
The first thing that most people will come away from Darkest Hour talking about is Gary Oldman’s performance as Winston Churchill. And rightfully so. Nearly unrecognizable underneath makeup and prosthetics, Oldman is absolutely brilliant. The best compliment I can give to an actor (and, in this case, also to his makeup and prosthetics team) is that, in the moment, I forgot I was watching a performance and just completely accepted him as Churchill. He successfully embodies Churchill’s bluster, his larger than life personality and his humanity. Somehow, he not only makes this man human, he also maintains his status as a heroic and brave figure. It is quite remarkable how the film succeeds at one without sacrificing the other. It is one of the best performances of the year.
A lot of the credit for the character working goes to Oldman, but a lot of the credit for the success of the overall film goes to director Joe Wright (director of 2008 Best Picture Oscar nominee Atonement) and writer Anthony McCarten (a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nominee in 2015 for the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything).
It is a challenge for a film like Darkest Hour, a period piece that is based on fact, to be engaging, since its audience already knows how events turned out. Sometimes, historical dramas are more admirable for their ambitions than they are entertaining. But, even though its ending is never in doubt, Wright makes this slice of history extremely compelling. Not only does he keep a surprisingly fast pace, McCarten’s screenplay injects just the right amount of humor at just the right time. Churchill was a smart, clever and very willful man, which leads to some pretty funny lines that never overshadow or undermine the tension between him and Halifax (Churchill wants to try to fight off the Nazis while Halifax thinks the only course is to enter into peace negotiations).
Though, again, the centerpiece of the film is Oldman’s fantastic performance, he gets ample support from Dillane, Ben Mendelsohn (from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) who is perfectly understated as King George, Lily James (who costarred as Debora in this summer’s hit Baby Driver) as his intimidated typist and a very good Kristin Scott Thomas as Churchill’s wife. They are a big reason why Churchill comes off as a real human being instead of an untouchable historical figure. Through them (especially the characters portrayed by Thomas and James), viewers get to see Churchill the man instead of just Churchill the politician.
Darkest Hour (two hours without the end credits) could have been a dry historical drama that recounts events without giving insight into the people involved. But Wright never lets his film become a mere history lesson. He keeps things moving and never injects artificial drama or takes the focus off of Churchill. The movie is focused on its central struggle to decide the future of the United Kingdom and allows Churchill’s personality conflicts to drive the story. Gary Oldman will get most of the publicity (and, I would assume, an Oscar nomination), but the entire film is worthy of admiration. It is one of the best films of the year.
4½ out of 5
Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill
Kristin Scott Thomas as Clementine Churchill
Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI
Stephen Dillane as Viscount Halifax
Lily James as Elizabeth Layton
Ronald Pickup as Neville Chamberlain
Directed by Joe Wright
Written by Anthony McCarten