Starring: Gary Oldman, Stephen Dillane, Kristen Scott Thomas
Director: Joe Wright
Running Time: 125 mins
Synopsis: May 1940, Britain faces its darkest moment. Germany has conquered most of Western Europe with France soon set to fall and the entirety of the British Army trapped at the beaches of Dunkirk awaiting rescue. Newly appointed Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Oldman) must face political opponents, a distrustful King George and his own self doubt over whether the country should fight on or sue for peace with Hitler.
It would be interesting to watch Darkest Hour in a double bill alongside Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Both centre on the events of May 1940, wherein the occupation of Europe by Nazi Germany was almost all encompassing. What remained of the British Army was left stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk with no capable navy available to rescue them. Now whilst my favourite film of 2017 was a primal, human boots on the ground look at the costs and challenges of survival, Darkest Hour focuses on an equally as vital battle going on back home. Not just political survival but collective nationalistic survival, the chance that within weeks Hitler’s forces could storm our own beaches. One man, however, held the tide back, albeit not without sacrifice. That man is, widely proclaimed Greatest Ever Briton, Winston Churchill.
Similar to last years solid if hazy Churchill (there played by a storming Brian Cox) Darkest Hour realises that to best capture the man is not a warts and all biopic, but a narrow snapshot of one of the no doubt many turbulent times in office. As the film commences current Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (a dignified Ronald Pickup) finds himself ousted from his party after losing the confidence of Parliament. Despite many calling for his successor to be the stoic Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), it is Churchill who can best unify the entire house into a necessary wartime coalition government (a different time indeed when the word coalition represented political strength). A decision that ruffles the feathers of Chamberlain, Halifax and the stuttering King George VI. The King is fearful of Winston’s unpredictability, conveyed in wonderful moments of candour between the twosome, and at times even a playful humour. Ben Mendelsohn graces the King with a rigid vulnerability with the infamous stutter nicely underplayed.
The man himself is of course the big draw here, and the film builds his introduction gradually before revealing him in the starkness of a morning cigar lighting his weathered face. Now one can not readily see Gary Oldman as being able to convincingly capture the physicality of Mr Churchill but thanks to some quite frankly astonishing make-up work all doubts are cast aside. Yes it does take a few scenes for you to acclimatise to seeing the hints of that recognisable face underneath the prosthetics, but Oldman’s bluster, stature and demeanour easily help you to lose yourself within the performance. It could be quite tempting in portraying ‘The Greatest Briton’ as a deified figure, always in the right and worthy of adoration. But director Joe Wright and writer Anthony McCarten are shrewder than that, giving us a true warts and all picture of a somewhat difficult man. Winston is a complicated individual, capable of great affection but also temperamental, stubborn and bumbling. The image of him as this great orator is effectively captured (his most famous speech given all the bombastic emotional fortitude it warrants) but surprisingly we see numerous moments of him blubbering incomprehensible words out, as if his overwhelming emotions are hindering the ability to formulate understandable sentences. Oldman commands the screen throughout, never afraid to play it quietly (after all this is an actor known for his excessive “acting”) letting those emotive captivating eyes tell the tale.
These sorts of performances usually overwhelm the actors around them, but here he has able support. Kristen Scott Thomas is vastly underused but a winning presence as Winston’s frustrated loyal wife, Clem. Their interactions carry with them such a sense of history, pain and love that you can see how he would’ve been lost without her. Thomas warmly capturing a woman who has sacrificed much to be with him, but realising the great cost such a career has placed on her husband. It is pity there isn’t more of her at play here. Lily James also appears as another influential woman in Churchill’s life, playing his put-upon secretary Elizabeth Layton. Used at first as the audience’s way in to Churchill’s life, she becomes a frustrating cipher. James trying her best with material that often has her looking on in awe at the man and little else. Slowly though there becomes an affectionate thawing to their relationship, with a jovial playfulness existing between them. A scene towards the latter half of her sharing her own personal sacrifice could have been trite but is subtly played, a longing mournful look conveying more than the proceeding moments.
These moments are where the film loses its energetic momentum and the earlier skills of the script lessen somewhat. After exorcising every possible avenue to evacuate our troops (Operation Dynamo as seen in Nolan’s Dunkirk is still seen as a likely failure) Churchill is faced with a War Council urgently pushing peace talks. Led by Dillane’s Halifax, an actor at his best when playing stubborn stoicism, who sees the chance to protect the lives of countless men as more important than Winston’s arrogant determination to win. It is easy now with hindsight and knowledge of the outcome to see Halifax and his fellow politicians as the enemy, but at this moment in time it truly looked like all hope was lost. Wright never plays to them as the enemy, conveying the complexity of such a decision in all its forms. Winston himself even starts to believe it is the only option, before a long dark night of the soul sees him weigh up this decision. The problem is Wright drags this out for what seems like an eternity, of course this is a potential country defining choice and some elements work. The aforementioned scene with James, or a tender quiet exchange between Prime Minister and King. But then the film decides to take him on a detour to the Underground and an encounter with the public.
How much of this is based on truth is largely subjective, McCarten’s script builds on actual events chopping and retconning for dramatic potential, but these moments feel at least real. This sequence however is too convenient, too saccharine and far too clunky for an otherwise mature elegant picture. There are moments within this moment that left me wincing with awkwardness, and a general confusion as to who let this scene into an otherwise clever script. Fortunately the film just about rights itself for a powerful and crowd pleasing ending, culminating in the realisation that there will be many more battles to come, and a lasting epilogue of the brutality that is politics.
It is a shame to see a film of such craft let itself down for Darkest Hour is truly one of the best directed films I’ve seen in ages. Wright, who we mustn’t forget is no stranger to this moment in history (the evacuation of Dunkirk is a key set piece in his soaring Atonement), gives what could have easily become a starchy stagy chamber-piece an immense urgency. Characters are always walking like some sort of WW2 version of The West Wing, the camera flying down corridors at pains to keep up. The dialogue flies out at a great Aaron Sorkin level pace, and is rammed with delicious bon mots (“my dad was like God, always somewhere else”). Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel’s lighting is used with such care and beauty, whether that be the heavenly beams of bright light shining into darkened Government halls, or the way Churchill is almost always framed within an encroaching darkness. As if the approaching psychological, political and wartime enemies are right at the fringes of his very soul. Despite budget limitations there are also some evocative overhead shots of calamitous destruction, Wright overseeing this with a drop down focus as if the eyes of God himself are looking upon them. He is also given wonderful support in the handsome sets and costumes, not to mention Dario Marianelli’s melancholy score. The confidence and artistry of what is at heart a film about people talking is second to none. In 2018 more than ever we need to be reminded of what the power of words can do, of what capable smart people in power can do, of how hope can be stronger than fear, of how being flawed does not prevent you from being great, and above all else of how damn good a film can be with great actors just conversing.
Verdict: Despite a late act segment that undermines its earlier strengths, Darkest Hour uses directorial flair and a formidable central performance to escalate a dialogue driven film into something immensely gripping.