Winston Churchill is easily one of the most revered British Prime Ministers, being the man who faced the Nazi threat when no one else would. Stories of his life have been told countless times, and the story about him becoming Prime Minister has been a passion project for writer/producer Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything).
It’s May 1940, the War on the Western Front has begun, and due to failures, the Labour Party refused to serve in a Grand Coalition headed by Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup). Only one man is able to command the support of the opposition parties, the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman). But Churchill has to face as many threats at home as well as the approaching Nazis.
Darkest Hour is the second film over the course of a year to focus on Winston Churchill during a crucial moment of the war, the first being the Brain Cox led Churchill. It’s also the second film in the space of a year to focus on the time of the Dunkirk Evacuation, the other being Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. It is even the second film in Joe Wright’s about this period – his previous film about 1940 was Atonement and this amazing tracking shot.
Compared to Churchill, Darkest Hour is a much better film: it is bigger, grander, and had a stronger cast. Churchill looked like a glorified TV film which was set in some nice manor houses but couldn’t hide its budget limitations. Darkest Hour looked cinematic, and that was due to director Joe Wright. Wright is an acclaimed director but suffered a setback with the Peter Pan origin film Pan, so with Darkest Hour, he moves back to material he is more comfortable with.
Wright’s talents were entirely on display as well as his usual bag of tricks. The costumes are lavish, make-up was great, especially on Gary Oldman, and Wright uses his favorite trope: the tracking shot. This time Wright worked with Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel instead of his collaborator Seamus McGarvey. Delbonnel’s work is deliberately drained of color compared to the bright visuals McGarvey offers but Delbonnel’s style works because of the wartime setting, and there are some striking visuals like a beam of light shining like a spotlight on the Parliamentary dispatch box. There were also moments of scale like showing some events of the war in Calais and the civilian boats sailing from Dover to Dunkirk.
Oldman and Cox both are terrific actors, and Cox looked the part more, but Oldman gave a much better performance. Oldman had to spend a lot of time in the make-up chair, and the film spent $30,000 on cigars to help him get into character. Oldman mastered Churchill’s oratory skills, whether within the House of Commons or on the radio and showed the trademark Churchill wit. There are similarities in both performances: both versions of Churchill are men who are constantly writing and editing their speeches, and they are reassured by their versions’ of Clementine, Churchill’s wife, when in doubt.
One of the key themes is the isolation Churchill suffers in his new position. He gets the job he always longed for at the worst possible time, and he has the weight of a nation on his shoulders – Churchill has to make life-and-death decisions, like whether to risk 4,000 lives to save the 300,000 men trapped at Dunkirk. Churchill is hated by his party and the establishment because he changed parties twice and as a couple of Conservative MPs put it, ‘He comes up with 100 ideas a day, only four are any good, and the rest would lead to disaster.’ Churchill is surrounded by enemies in the War Cabinet with Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) wanting to trap the PM so he can usurp his position. One great visual showing Churchill’s isolation is after he makes a disastrous call to President Roosevelt and is shown to be alone and dejected in a private room.
Darkest Hour also tackles the idea of how much a government should tell the people about the war situation. Churchill keeps saying the Allies are winning the war to keep morale up when he really knows that France and the Low Countries are about to fall. However, this leads to some people thinking Churchill is at best giving the public false hope and at worst delusional and has no understanding of modern warfare.
There are parallels to the German film Downfall about the last days of Hitler and the Nazi Regime. Both films show the leader of their respective country on the verge of collapse, and they are similar scenes of the leaders looking at maps and ordering impossible counter-attacks although both men have different reasons for their actions. They have a subplot involving their secretaries, and both men are shown to treat their assistants differently – Hitler was compassionate to his, while Churchill berated Elizabeth Layton (Lily James).
Darkest Hour is a film for history enthusiasts, and people interested in British politics and the film does go into great detail. As George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) states, every ministry Churchill worked in was a disaster. Churchill was even partly responsible for the downfall of Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) because of the failed plan to assist Norway. Of course, some liberties were taken for dramatic effect like Halifax and Chamberlain’s plotting to bring down Churchill when they are shown to be entirely in the wrong instead of being men doing what they thought was best for Britain. But there was one scene where the suspension of disbelief was too difficult: it was clearly trying to replicate a scene in William Shakespeare’s Henry V where the king walks amongst his subject to find out what the followers are really thinking: but the way it was portrayed in Darkest Hour was too ridiculous.
Darkest Hour was a great effort from Gary Oldman and Joe Wright and compared to McCarten’s previous film, Darkest Hour actually focused on the work of its subject. This one is for the history buffs.