Director: Joe Wright
Stars: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James
Running time: 125 mins
Ratings: IMDB 7.4 (IMDB score is weighted average of audience scores out of 10)
Rotten Tomatoes 86% (Rotten Tomatoes score is % of professional critic reviews that are
Awards: Oscars (2 wins, 4 nominations), Golden Globes (1 win), BAFTAs (2 wins, 7 nominations)
Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) is first seen in Darkest Hour in bed, having breakfast. No, Weetabix isn’t on the menu. There is a massive plate of bacon, sausages and eggs, a full “English,” but the food is getting cold because he has a cigar to deal with, and a big glass of whisky too.
He is dictating letters, answering telephone calls and bawling out his new secretary, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James.) He has barely been on screen for a moment but we are immediately given a sense of his childishness, his pomposity, his eccentricity, his way with words and his ability to juggle multiple tasks at once. The date is 10 May 1940 and he is on the verge of fulfilling his lifetime ambition and becoming Prime Minister.
Oldman, who has just won a Golden Globe, is in phenomenal form as Churchill. He doesn’t underplay at all. There wouldn’t be any point in that. He blusters and bellows, makes V signs, smokes cigars, and generally lives up to everybody’s preconceptions about the man voted in a 2002 BBC poll as the “greatest Briton of all time”.
This, though, is acting that moves well beyond caricature and bowler hat-wearing mannerism. Oldman’s Churchill is devious, alcoholic and conceited, but also resilient and perceptive. He’s riven with guilt about Gallipoli and also fretting about household expenses. (His wife can’t afford to pay the bills.)
Oldman doesn’t look entirely like his character. Even after the hundreds of hours of make-up, he’s not as bulky as Churchill. When he is prowling down the corridors of Whitehall, he seems far more nimble than you’d expect a man of his age and girth to be. None of this matters.
Oldman’s great insight is that Churchill was giving a performance. “Be yourself,” his wife Clemmie (an improbably glamorous Kristin Scott Thomas) tells him as he prepares to take office. “Which self should I be today?” he replies. Oldman is a chameleon playing a chameleon.
Director Joe Wright takes the film’s title at face value and shoots it as if it is a film noir. Whether it’s the House Of Commons, or Buckingham Palace, where Churchill is summoned by an untrusting King George VI (played by Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn in an altogether sterner way that he was by Colin Firth in The King’s Speech) or the Cabinet War Rooms, every interior is bathed in heavy shadows.
This is a chamber piece but one done on an epic scale. The camera never stops moving. Every so often, Wright throws in surprising formal flourishes to take us away from the talking heads. For example, when Churchill gives an address on the radio, his face is bathed in red light from the broadcasting equipment. The film cuts to a high angle shot of Europe in flames. From the red of the fires, we next see a huge close up of the face of a dead soldier, whose eye is also bloodshot red.
The backstairs intrigues here are putting the nation’s future at risk. Although the film opens with black and white footage of massed forces of German tanks, soldiers and generals, the “villains” aren’t just Hitler and Mussolini; in the two or three weeks in May that the story covers, Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) and Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), are Churchill’s main antagonists.
For reasons the film doesn’t fully explain, Halifax has passed over the chance to become Prime Minister himself. The pacifist Chamberlain has been ousted because the opposition won’t accept him as a wartime leader. He is ill with cancer. Both men still want to sue for peace.
The film portrays them in a highly ambivalent fashion. They may be trying to stem the bloodshed and slaughter but they’re always shown in a furtive light, as if they’re traitors, hiding in corners, conspiring against their own country as they try to engineer a vote of no confidence against Churchill.
At one stage, Churchill reveals that he has hardly even travelled on London’s public transport system. Nor, it appears, has screenwriter Anthony McCarten. The film’s most crucial scene involves the Prime Minister, at his weakest and most anguished point, making a single stop journey on the Underground.
This would normally take a minute or two at most but the journey lasts for a small eternity as Churchill meets a selection of salt-of-the-earth British types – bricklayers, housewives and the like – who reinforce him in the conviction that Britain must never surrender.
Much of the first half of Darkest Hour is devoted to highlighting Churchill’s foibles: his childlike dependence on Clemmie, his drunkenness, his boorishness, his “delusional” perspective on the war, and his tendency towards depression.
In the latter part of the film, we finally begin to see just what made him such an inspirational leader; it wasn’t just his rhetoric but the clarity of his vision. For all his egotism, he paid attention to the public in a way the other politicians didn’t.
Unlike Halifax and Chamberlain, he also understood that Britain had to fight, even if it was facing likely defeat and annihilation.“If we were beaten, we should be no worse off than we should be if we were now to abandon the struggle,” he roars at his War Cabinet. “You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth.” He argued that “nations which go down fighting rise again” but those that “surrender tamely are finished.”
Thankfully, Darkest Hour largely steers clear of jingoism. This isn’t an uncritical celebration of British bulldog spirit but a nuanced portrait of Churchill at a key point early in the war. At times, as played by Oldman, he’s like one of those forlorn characters in a Samuel Beckett play, an old man consumed with guilt and regret.
We know, though, that he’ll soon find the words that won’t just banish his own doubts but those of the nation too. The expressive, rapier-thin Oldman was improbable casting as spymaster George Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy and is an even less likely choice to play Churchill but he tackles the role in bravura fashion, showing us the character’s weaknesses and how far he had to go to overcome them.