During World War Two, as the enemy army slowly forces ally soldiers back to the French coast, the British government loses faith in its current Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, and sends for Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) to accept the position, the only man that both of the opposing political parties within government would accept. With a gargantuan task at hand, possibly looking at the complete downfall of western Europe, Churchill is constantly pressured to set up peaceful negotiations with the enemy in order to reduce further loss of life but Churchill believes that the country must fight on to the last man and that peace with an evil enemy is not a viable option. As the powers that be within parliament start planning to remove him from office, Churchill becomes increasingly doubtful and uncertain, wondering if he is in fact following the right course of action, the one that’s best for Britain.
Starting with the man of the (darkest) hour, Gary Oldman truly is the main draw of the film and, using some very impressive and convincing make-up/prosthetics, he completely becomes Churchill, getting completely lost in the role and very often getting you to forget that it’s actually him; it’s one of those very rare performances where the actor completely embodies the character, not at all seeming like an actor putting on a show. Oldman manages to display a great many sides to Churchill’s character: starting off, he appears quite cranky and curmudgeonly but soon after shows a softer, more caring side and at various points in the film, he showcases Churchill’s very particular sense of humour, his stubbornness, resilience and defiance against those who pressure him to accept peace talks and a very real sense of worry and uncertainty when he struggles to figure out just what path of action he should take. The trailer proclaims that Gary Oldman IS Winston Churchill and I, like so many others, have to agree; his commanding, transformative turn as this major 20th century figure is the main reason to see this film and it will surely pave the way for a BAFTA/Oscar nomination for the much loved actor.
As for the supporting cast, there are no weak links but all are pretty much overshadowed by Oldman and there are perhaps only two or three worth mentioning. Fresh from the huge success of Baby Driver, Lily James is perhaps the heart, the human face, of the piece and sometimes acts as the audience surrogate in her role of Churchill’s secretary, especially in a scene where Churchill explains the current Calais/Dunkirk predicament to her. James is a nice enough supporting player but her role is largely superfluous and isn’t on screen enough to make enough of an impact – although she does participate in one of the film’s funnier, more memorable scenes involving Churchill’s misuse of the two-fingered salute! Ben Mendelsohn also puts in a restrained, dignified performance as King George VI, using a few subtle stammers and lisps, taking care not to mimic Colin Firth’s interpretation of the famous figure, and Kristin Scott Thomas is good as Churchill’s wife Clementine, being the stable figure of the relationship, offering support and generally being the power behind the throne, so to speak. The supporting cast do back up Oldman very well but playing second, third, fourth fiddle to the main star means that no other characters are properly developed.
From a technical standpoint, Darkest Hour is a very well crafted film and the production design is spot-on; Dario Marionelli provides a fitting musical accompaniment and all the sets and locations look perfectly authentic. There’s solid direction from Joe Wright and he plays around with lighting and colour a lot, shaking things up a bit and making things as visually interesting as possible. It also has an interesting enough story about how the British government dealt with the notion of imminent defeat and Darkest Hour is surely an ideal companion piece to Dunkirk; we essentially witness the same events but from the home front rather than on the French beaches. The story also allows us to see “both sides of the coin” as it often appears as though opting for peace talks would be the sensible thing to do, how it seems futile to keep needlessly sacrificing lives, but at the same time, we share in Churchill’s determination to keep fighting against the monstrous enemy even though it would result in further loss of ally life.
But while the film is helped by its barnstorming central performance and its laudable craft, Darkest Hour doesn’t really bring anything new to the table and at this point in time, when we’ve surely seen scores of World War era films, this particular film doesn’t offer anything revolutionary to make it stand out against other, similar films in the genre. It’s a little by-the-numbers and there are no surprises to be found; it’s the kind of film where you’ll know exactly what to expect going in – a patriotic triumph over adversity where all hope seems lost at one point but everyone rallies together and it all ends on an optimistic note and an Oscar winning speech.
There’s also quite a large lull in the middle where the film seems to go around in circles (the parliamentary powers demand peace negotiations, Chuchill says no, starts grappling with his conscience) and not a lot actually happens; the overly talky nature of the film becomes more of an issue as the film moves towards its endgame and it has a tendency to get quite boring, although the inciting incidents do indeed recur and the ending scenes, especially the segment that takes place on the London underground, work very well.