Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour stylishly follows Winston Churchill’s early days as Prime Minister with a transformative performance from Gary Oldman.
Darkest Hour is director Joe Wright’s latest project, with the filmmaker tackling the historical figure of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in his early days in the position during World War II. The director is no stranger to period pieces, having helmed 2005’s Pride and Prejudice, the Academy Award nominated Atonement in 2007, and Anna Karenina in 2012. Wright has also tried his hand at modern drama with The Soloist, action/thrillers with Hanna, and big-budget fantasy in Pan. However, while Pan was a critical and financial miss for Wright, the director returns to what is assuredly his bread and butter by taking a look at a much talked about historical figure. Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour stylishly follows Winston Churchill’s early days as Prime Minister with a transformative performance from Gary Oldman.
Roughly nine months after the start of World War II, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) is forced to resign his position due to his lack of progress in the war movement. Though his political party, the Conservative Party, wishes to appoint Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) as Chamberlain’s successor, he turns down the position. The Conservative Party is forced to appoint Winston Churchill (Oldman), much to the dislike of Chamberlain, Halifax, and King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn). With the support of his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), his family, and the help of his personal secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), Churchill assumes the position of Prime Minister and is forced to lead the country through World War II.
However, even in Churchill’s early days as Prime Minister, Chamberlain and Halifax plot to force his resignation, while King George VI also makes his dislike of Churchill known. They take issue with Churchill’s strong stance on fighting – and defeating – Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime and view his aversion to peace talks as unjustifiably intractable. As France falls to Hitler’s Nazi forces, and Britain’s Allied soldiers struggle to retreat across the English Channel from Dunkirk, Churchill faces increasing pressure from Chamberlain, Halifax, and the rest of his war council to at least entertain the possibility of entering into peace talks with Germany. With Churchill’s belief that the only way to maintain Britain’s independence is defeating Hitler on the battlefield at odds with his war council’s pleas to prevent a German invasion through peace talks, the newly appointed Prime Minister must forge a path that will keep his country safe.
Darkest Hour was directed by Wright from a screenplay penned by Anthony McCarten. The Academy Award-nominated screenwriter, novelist, and playwright earned his nomination for The Theory of Everything in 2014. He also wrote the novel Death of a Superhero in addition to the screenplay for its film adaptation, and penned the script for the upcoming Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. McCarten has clearly proved himself adept at weaving together the personal and professional lives of historical figures, and does so again with Churchill in Darkest Hour. The script works to showcase both Churchill’s challenge in winning over the people of Great Britain – in addition to its political leaders – while finding levity in the man’s personal life and relationships. Still, while McCarten’s script offers a strong enough foundation for the rest of the film, it isn’t Darkest Hour’s greatest strength.
That would undoubtedly be Oldman’s performance as Churchill, for which the actor had to undergo hours of makeup in order to pull off the transformation into the former Prime Minister. Oldman positively disappears into the role of Churchill, bringing the entire man to life – constant cigar smoking, habitual drinking, and unique way of speaking all included. Darkest Hour is clearly Oldman’s vehicle and he uses the film as a means to give what may be his best performance to date. He brings equal parts warmth and gravitas to a historical figure known for being intimidating. In one particularly memorable scene, Oldman also offers a great deal of vulnerability to Churchill that brings the whole character together. Certainly, the actor’s performance and transformation into Churchill has already sparked awards season buzz – and Oldman earns that buzz entirely.
Of course, Oldman also performs excellently with his costars. His interactions with Mendelsohn as King George VI are rife with tense politeness the translates into truly compelling drama. Thomas, as Churchill’s wife Clementine, also works to bring out the Prime Minister’s heart and humor, though the character isn’t given much else to do beyond showcase those qualities in her husband. Pickup and Dillane as Chamberlain and Halifax, respectively, play necessary adversaries to Churchill that have at least some depth in their own conflicted ideas of how to lead Great Britain through the war. The most enjoyable foil for Oldman’s Churchill is James’ portrayal of his secretary Elizabeth Layton. Like Clementine, Elizabeth’s main role in the story of Darkest Hour is to highlight Churchill’s heart, humor and vulnerability – essentially, the human side of the popular historical figure. However, Elizabeth is given a bit more development, and James’ performance brings the young secretary to life with charisma and charm.
Still, Darkest Hour is Churchill’s story and though the film may sacrifice wholly well-rounded supporting characters for the sake of the Prime Minister, it’s to Oldman’s benefit as it allows him to shine brightest. Further working to highlight Oldman’s performance as Churchill are cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, who creates incredibly rich visuals that play with light. Combined with the music composed by Dario Marianelli, Darkest Hour offers a beautifully vibrant environment for Churchill’s story. That said, in terms of technical aspects, we would be remiss to leave out David Malinowski, Lucy Sibbick, Kazuhiro Tsuji, and Diana Choi who worked on the makeup, wig, and prosthetics that are completely necessary to Oldman’s perfect transformation into Churchill. Overall, these aspects pull Darkest Hour together and offer a strong backdrop to Churchill’s story.
However, beyond Oldman’s transformative performance as Churchill and the insight into a brief, albeit key, period in the Prime Minister’s tenure, there’s little about Darkest Hour’s story that answers the question of why it needs to be told. As such, the movie may be fascinating for those already interested in Churchill’s history or World War II – and Darkest Hour works as a companion to Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s film that released earlier this year – but isn’t necessary viewing. That said, Darkest Hour will undoubtedly be a major player in this year’s awards season, with Oldman a shoo-in nomination for Best Actor. Those hoping to catch all the big awards season contenders will want to watch Darkest Hour. But, aside from Oldman’s performance and Wright’s stylistic flare, Darkest Hour is a relatively standard, and entertaining enough, dramatic biopic.
Darkest Hour is now playing in limited release in the United States and will go wide starting December 22, 2017. It runs 125 minutes and is rated PG-13 for some thematic material.
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