Britain’s ‘Darkest Hour’ involves standing in the way of Adolf Hitler’s worldwide domination, in this biopic detailing the famed Prime Minister. Set during the early days of World War II, with the fall of France imminent, Britain faces its darkest hour as the threat of invasion looms. As the seemingly unstoppable Nazi forces advance, and with the Allied army cornered on the beaches of Dunkirk, the fate of Western Europe hangs on the leadership of the newly-appointed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman). While maneuvering his political rivals, he must confront the ultimate choice: negotiate with Hitler and save the British people at a terrible cost or rally the nation and fight on against incredible odds. Directed by Joe Wright, the film is the dramatic and inspiring story of four weeks in 1940 during which Churchill’s courage to lead changed the course of world history forever. ‘Darkest Hour’ is rated PG-13 for some thematic material.
Winston Churchill was a revolutionary in the office, but merely a frail man outside of it, and it’s in Wright’s tenderly revealing portrait of the legendary figure that we come to understand the parallels of either when combined to elaborate on what made the man tick. Churchill was very much a man who came into office under less-desirable circumstances, facing extreme opposition not only in the face of an evil regime led by Hitler himself, but also in those he considered constituents all around him that made his tenure the more difficult because of it. Yet, Winston as a man who lacks the ability to even fry an egg in his daily routine, so when you consider the immense weight of position and progression from war that continues around him, it’s that much more appealing in screenplay value as it caters to a figure that we are seeing as legitimately human for perhaps the first time in screenplay form. As a Prime Minister, Winston comes to learn that the right decisions aren’t often the easiest, and in a time when everyone is looking to sell their souls to stay above ground, Churchill himself feels passionate about pointing out the necessities of war to those who are already convincing him to taste the agony of defeat.
Coming off of the success of ‘Dunkirk’, this Summer, ‘Darkest Hour’ proves to be a worthy successor to continuing the events of this story once more, but this time from an entirely different angle that caters to the strategist’s side of history and less to the physical side of it. The lack of wartime documentation did puzzle me about this film dearly, choosing only to drop in occasionally for the Wikipedia summary of biggest events, but what did make up for it was the triumphant work of Academy Award nominated screenwriter Anthony McCarten who chooses to stay closely hand-in-hand with our male lead. Through two hours of exceptionally paced substance that carefully fills in the blanks, this is a script that more times than not humanizes the spirit of Winston that works out nicely. My very favorite perk of this film was seeing Winston in his time with his loving and supportive wife Clementine (Played wonderfully by Kristen Scott Thomas) who kind of balances the uneasy circumstance within this man who is responsible for hundreds of thousands. But choosing not to rest there, the film does pack a spell-binding punch from some truly compelling dramatic tension that clouds the entirety of this finished product. As I mentioned before, there’s little war sequences to the film, so instead we are treated to the tug-of-war in the battle for power from Churchill’s own cabinet who deem him unfit for such a job.
Perhaps the most evident angle that resides within the film is the concept of relationships and what they mean to Winston in his decisions. I’ve already mentioned the heartfelt center of Winston and his wife Clementine, and what they give the film, but the additional dynamic duo’s of Winston’s embracing of a dedicated typist (Played by Lily James), as well as the developing friendship that he had with King George the 6th (Played by Ben Mendelsohn), sort of carve out this very surreal sense of hope that resided within the country that fuels Winston’s desire to keep proceeding forward. In a weaker written film, this could’ve easily went sour in presenting something that could combat the repetition of meetings that make up a majority of the picture, but I think McCarten knows how to make them stand out for their own reason. For King George, it’s the importance of history and tradition, and for James character, it is in presenting a very harrowing representation of seeing things from a citizen’s perspective. All of these bricks of exposition stack up tremendously in presenting us with the final and often times praised leader that adorns our closing moments with him.
The production value to the film is one that carries it over oceans of length creatively in offering something new to a common Churchill film. The presence of Wright’s stamp of approval here is evident, most notably in the exceptional coloring palate and camera work of Bruno Delbonat that accurately depicts the sense of inevitable dread in the atmosphere. From afar, the film can often times look like it is being shot in black and white, speaking levels to the kind of post-apocalyptic heartbeats that were echoing on our doorstep, but with closer dissection, it’s clear that a necessary shade of grey (Pardon the pun) faithfully illustrate the classic look in film design of yesterday. There’s also some experimental sequencing involved with a slow panning out shot that frequently ends scenes in and around war that reach out to the audience personally and make you feel their dimming disposition of hope. This shot is never overdone to reach levels of cliche within its filmmaking, and offers something different in modern day transitions that we thought have nothing of originality left within them. Finally, the sound editing and mixing spare no expense in their qualities with the film. There are a few sequences in the film in which we get to hear the actual Churchill reside over his increasing audience, and this offers an indulging side to the setting that puts us front-and-center in the seats of many who were searching for anything to hold onto during such an unpredictable time in Britain’s rugged history.
This is without question a one man show, and while that single performance is the very best in a year of phenomenal performances, the lack of inclusion as a whole leaves a negative stamp on an otherwise reputable ensemble cast. For my money, I could’ve used more of Mendelsohn and Scott Thomas in the film, as I felt the few scenes that they invade are made that much more endearing because of their contrast to Churchill. Lily James gives definitely the most moving performance of her young career, but I don’t support the way her character overrides the importance of exposition time to that of his own wife that the film desperately needed. With that out of the way, Gary Oldman is currently polishing the Oscar statue as I write this. Oldman is virtually unrecognizable as Churchill, represented with a balding look and protruding gut that accurately cement his riveting transformation here. But it’s the little things that positively startled me about his dive into Winston. His speech patterns are perfect, mumbling and stuttering through miles of dialogue that feel like they last a lifetime because of it. That may sound like a negative, but that in many ways was how Churchill himself was as a public speaker, and Oldman’s consistency and dedication moved miles in this regard. In addition to this, the exhaustion from Oldman during long walking or scenes in which he walks up stairs is clearly evident in increased breathing patterns that echo that of someone with decaying health. It all summarizes wonderfully the kind of value in returns that you get when you cast an actor like Oldman, who is one of the last true method actors of a prestigious era.
THE VERDICT – Despite this being only a brief period in Churchill’s historic life, ‘Darkest Hour’ feels like the first Churchill film worthy of telling the entire story. Through Oldman’s definitive impeccably perfect performance, as well as Wright’s flashy effects in visual affection, the film is a stirring shape of inspiration that reminds us how different things could’ve been without the love of country that one misunderstood man had. The storytelling could’ve been extensive and more elaborate in its wide scale, but it’s difficult to fault too much away from a film geared towards one man in and out of the costume.