In May of 1940, mainland Europe was on the verge of being overrun and conquered by the Nazi war machine. The British government, under Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, teetered on capitulating to Hitler until “the right man in the right job at the right time,” Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman), stepped in during the country’s “Darkest Hour.”
We had another film this year about Winston Churchill, “Churchill,” about the man on the eve of the Normandy invasion, a time of potential victory. Director Joe Wright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten take a very different chapter in the wartime Prime Minister’s life when Britain was facing a war ill-prepared for and the looming German invasion of the British Isles.
Gary Oldman gives an earnest performance as the beleaguered, newly-minted PM of Great Britain as the Nazis conquer one country after another and the entire British army faces annihilation on the beaches of Dunkirk. This pending disaster is spoken about through the film and shown with just a brief glimpse of hundreds of civilian boats heading to the beaches for the rescue of hundreds of thousands of British and French troops.
“Darkest Hour” centers on British politics at that critical time when the country was at its most dangerous crossroads: negotiate with the Nazis and capitulate or to fight them with every ounce of strength the British people can muster. We know how that decision went.
Those interested in history, especially British and World War II, will be immersed in the machinations of how the Neville Chamberlain government lost the support of Parliament and the King and a successor needed to be named. A part of the film deals with the controversial selection of the new Prime Minister, with Churchill at its center.
Gary Oldman does a fine job in capturing the posture and mannerisms of Winston Churchill but the makeup visually creating that metamorphosis falls a bit short – I kept seeing the actor bleed through the greasepaint. The rest of the cast fill their historic roles well enough but few stand out as more than background.
Kristen Scott Thomas, as Clementine Churchill, is a forceful character as the strong-willed wife who knows her husband so well. She defends her husband’s new secretary from his tirades and gives Winston the strong shoulder he needs at this darkest hour. Lily James, as the aforementioned secretary, Elizabeth Layton, gives a solid performance, again – I like this young actress more and more.
Do not expect a great deal of “action” while watching “Darkest Hour.” Sure, there is the ever-present war always looming but this is not “Dunkirk,” and does not try to be. It does depict, in a well-structured production, a moment in history when freedom and democracy in Europe was on the brink of being snuffed out and the man who led the fight against it. I give it a B.
With continental Europe falling to Hitler and Britain's entire army stranded on the French coast, England's faith in their Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup, "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel") is at an all time low. The 65 year-old Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) is voted into the position by Tories backed into a corner by a Labour Party who would have accepted no other. Churchill's heavy drinking and judgement are called into question by his own party and the King, but with the weight of the nation on his shoulders, the man many considered a warmonger led them through their "Darkest Hour."
Earlier this year we had Jonathan Teplitzky's take on a slightly later time frame, Brian Cox starring as "Churchill," but while Cox may look more the part, Joe Wright's ("Atonement," "Pan") movie, written by "The Theory of Everything's" Anthony McCarten, is more authentic, its political focus inward. Oldman may looks less like Churchill than Cox - we always see the actor's eyes - but his towering performance enables us to suspend disbelief (makeup prosthetics by Kazuhiro Tsuji, developed over six months, are as good as it gets).
Wright gives us a deeply divided Parliament, the King's choice, Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane, "The Hours," "44 Inch Chest"), like Chamberlain, pushing for conciliation with Hitler over presumed annihilation. As he awaits the news, we see Churchill's morning ritual, a breakfast of bacon, eggs and toast accompanied by a tumbler of whisky and his signature cigar, the statesman careening around his house is bathrobe and slippers not caring who sees him. He also terrifies Elizabeth Layton (Lily James, "Cinderella," "Baby Driver") who flees her secretarial interview until she is the one given the fateful telegram from the Palace outside of Churchill's residence. Churchill's wife and most trusted advisor Clemmie (Kristin Scott Thomas) sets him straight on his treatment of others, particularly given his new position.
McCarten paints an amusing first meeting between the new PM and King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn, "Animal Kingdom," "Rogue One"), Churchill less than accommodating to royalty. Wright's penchant for long, tracking scenes (his Dunkirk scene in "Atonement" is astonishing) is displayed here in two very different street scenes viewed by Churchill from his car, the first depicting his trip to the palace as Britons go about their daily business, later, the same locale suggesting Britain's dismal future with young boys cavorting in Hitler masks. McCarten used Churchill's war cabinet minutes for dialogue and it is fascinating to watch Churchill's indecision mature into decisiveness, his great grasp of history informing his viewpoint as he argues his position in his underground bunker. The man's relationship with Elizabeth warms over shared gossip, with the King over shared vision. The film's standout scene is Churchill's first ride on the underground, his engagement of the common man inspiring one of his greatest speeches.
Oldman knocks this larger-than-life portrayal out of the park, delivering a man forever haunted by his fateful part in the Battle of Gallipoli as he contemplates the slaughter of more troops, a man of large appetites and little patience, a man whose intimidating presence belies his own self doubt. Wright frequently isolates Oldman in his frame, emphasizing the man's uniquely solitary burden. Also strong is Mendelsohn, whose George V trumps Colin Firth's Oscar winning version. The production favors the dark, rich woods of the Parliament and the muted tones of WWII England.
"Darkest Hour's" greatest achievement is reminding us how different the world almost was but for one man's ability to lead others to fight against fascism. It is a sobering realization in today's world.
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