I tend to immensely enjoy period films, whether they be so clearly fictional that any tagline at the end stating, “based on a true story” is complete nonsense, or they be written so well and their characters so well portrayed that they feel real no matter how inaccurate they may be. Frankly, no movie is historically accurate, but “Darkest Hour” is as close as any may come, and still manages to be dramatically entertaining.
“Darkest Hour” is essentially a flashy character study of Churchill during his most difficult time as Prime Minister. The film’s plot coincides particularly well with the plot of “Dunkirk,” which was released earlier this year. “Dunkirk” has no historical context; it simply explores the battle in terms of action, be it physically or psychologically. “Darkest Hour” is about words, and how words can serve as action. Some of the movie’s lines are direct quotes from Churchill, and we get to see the prime minister delivering some of his most famous speeches. The film draws comparisons to “The King’s Speech” in its emphasis on language as a source of unity and power. King George VI is portrayed by Ben Mendelsohn here, who continues to be fantastic in any role he plays. The King is at first a stiff and doubtful fellow, but later becomes one of Winston’s staunchest supporters.
The film opens with Chamberlain’s ouster as prime minister, and proceeds to show Churchill’s appointment and decision-making in the period from May 8 to June 4, 1940. The film regularly slots the dates in huge text. The challenges that Churchill faces are unparalleled, as he inherits a divisive mess where he and the people are ready for war, while his biggest opponents want peace with Hitler. The notion of negotiating a peace treaty with Hitler and having Mussolini serve as the middle-man seems preposterous when looking back on it today. Churchill nonetheless maneuvers his way around such ignorance, and even seems to enjoy the games of politics, to which he employs his charm and intellect brilliantly.
Gary Oldman’s performance as the prime minister is astounding. Not for a second did I not think that I was looking at Churchill himself. He perfectly encapsulates every feature of the man, from his blustering sense of humor to his sly intelligence. From every cigar lighting to every sip of whiskey, I was totally engrossed. The supporting cast is excellent as well; Lily James as the constantly burdened secretary, Stephen Dillane as the aristocratic and diplomacy-seeking Lord Halifax, and Kristin Scott Thomas as Churchill’s loving wife, who humanizes his otherwise jagged edges.
The film is classified as a war drama, but has no battle scenes and moves at the pace of a thriller. It seems fitting, considering that the focus of the story is on Churchill’s white-knuckle decisions that placed the fate of Britain and Europe on his shoulders. Anytime the movie cut to a scene set outside Britain, I immediately wanted to go back to the dialog-heavy parts that make up the majority of the screen time. I appreciated the balance of light and shadow in the cinematography, though there are certain shots that feel like they came out of a B-line production. The first shot lingering over the Parliament is especially impressive, and gave me a taste of what to expect going forward. The lyrical score from Dario Marianelli provides just the right amount of humorous character and emotionally-swelling crescendos at just the right moments.
There is a scene that many history buffs have taken offense to, with some going so far as to say that the entire film was ruined because of it. Towards the end of the movie, when Churchill must decide whether it is his responsibility to consider the possibility of peace talks or ignore his war cabinet and proceed into war with Hitler, he decides to visit with citizens of Britain by means of the subway. While the suggestion that Churchill one day left his car and entered the Tube is of course ludicrous, the scene convincingly portrays Churchill as a man who cared about the people and listened to their wishes. And he did enjoy immense support from the people, which is why I have no problem with it. In fact, due to Churchill’s aristocratic lifestyle (he said that he was “easily satisfied with the very best”), I’m not sure there could have been another way to visually show how in tune he was with the direction the public wanted regarding the war. It is important to remember that the film is limited to only two hours of a visual explanation of a very complex man. Even a documentary would have difficulty in displaying his every aspect and decision.
Anchored with excellent screenwriting and a performance by Gary Oldman that should win him a long-deserved Oscar, “Darkest Hour” is one of the year’s very best, and one of the most rousing historical dramas ever created. As Churchill instilled such valor and patriotism in others that no other man could, the film instills such energy and thoughtfulness that no other film can.