Last year was a good one for movies related to the 1940 evacuation from Dunkirk. Combined with Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (about the actual events) and Lone Scherfig’s Their Finest (about a clumsy propaganda film made about the situation), Darkest Hour completes a triangle that offers a reasonably comprehensive perspective regarding one of the most celebrated military actions of World War II. This film, made by celebrated director Joe Wright from a historically-based screenplay by Anthony McCarten, looks at the events of May 1940 from the pinnacle of the British political machine. As Hitler’s troops roll across France, heads roll in Westminster with Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) resigning in favor of the rough, unpredictable, and not always likable Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman). Darkest Hour then follows Churchill’s first 2½ weeks in office as he forges alliances, makes enemies, and sometimes looks like he won’t survive to see the end of the month let alone the end of the war.
Oldman’s portrayal of Churchill is among the best to reach the screen. With the help of makeup, Oldman immerses himself so deeply in the role that the actor disappears. In achieving this, the actor puts himself alongside Brian Cox in Churchill (tremendous performance, mediocre movie) and Timothy Spall in The King’s Speech (possibly the best-ever screen interpretation of the former PM). Darkest Hour’s supporting cast is strong, including Lily James as Churchill’s personal secretary, Elizabeth Layton; Kristin-Scott Thomas as his wife, Clementine; Pickup as Neville "Appeasement" Chamberlain (the role was originally intended for John Hurt, but he died prior to the start of filming); Ben Mendelsohn as the stuttering King George VI (interesting to compare his version to Colin Firth’s); and Stephen Dillane as Viscount Halifax (quite a contrast to Stannis Baratheon).
Darkest Hour features no war scenes but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any combat. For Churchill, the House of Commons is his battlefield. His war strategy — the opposite of Chamberlain’s patient, diplomatic approach — is met with a mixture of skepticism and hostility. Churchill receives a boost when the king rejects the "peace at all costs" solution favored by Chamberlain and Halifax but Churchill still faces obstacles. The United States refuses to break its neutrality to help out England. France is collapsing and the U.K.’s army appears to be trapped. Churchill’s greatest weapon in this time of crisis is his oratorical skills, which he deploys on more than one occasion.
Wright is known for long takes and innovative angles. He reminds us of this with his opening shot, an ambitious one that starts at the ceiling of the House of Commons before descending to ground level and approaching the speech-maker from the side. This is perhaps the showiest piece of cinematography in the film but it’s not the only time Wright punctuates a scene with a flourish. His style is the antithesis of the quick-edit approach favored by many directors. There are times when he goes more than a minute without a cut. He prefers dazzling with camerawork than with editing.
Historically, the movie is mostly accurate, although the acrimony among the trio of Churchill, Chamberlain, and Halifax is amped up to increase the dramatic tension. There’s little doubt, however, that Churchill’s early tenure was rocky and that he was in danger of losing the Prime Minister’s position not long after being offered it. Dunkirk was as much his salvation as it was that of the British army. Had the rescue not happened, the war would have gone very differently.
Although the majority of Darkest Hour focuses on Churchill the politician, it takes a little time to introduce us to Churchill the man. He could be stubborn, pugnacious, and downright despicable. We see his ugly side when he first meets Elizabeth and nearly frightens her away with a vicious (and undeserved) diatribe. His relationship with his wife, Clementine, works because she can match him with vigor, vinegar, and spirit. Yet, when he needs her, she’s by his side, soothing and supporting.
By giving a portrait that’s richer than the one in history books and by sticking close to the factual record, Wright is able to avoid the pitfalls that doomed the year’s other drama about the former Prime Minister, Churchill. Although the time frame is different (that one took place much later in the war), many of the intentions are the same. Darkest Hour is easily the better movie. World War II students will appreciate its attention to detail and the way it shows how close the world came to disaster even before the blitz began. Casual movie-fans may find a few surprises in the narrative. Everyone, however, will be awed by Oldman’s uncanny transformation and the way he brings back to life an icon who has been dead for more than 50 years.