German troops have rolled through France and Belgium. England’s troops have been routed and are being forced back to the coast. The United States has, as of yet, refused to enter the war. Parliament is in an uproar over Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s apparent inability to govern in wartime. Both parties are seeking a replacement to get them through this grim and bleak time. Members of the ruling Conservative Party meet in a quiet room to hear Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) tender his resignation and to choose the new candidate for Prime Minister. The camera pans across the table as old statesmen nominate Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) for the position. At the end of the table sits Halifax himself. He declines, alluding that the time is not yet ripe for him to assume the role of leadership. Back the camera pans, as the statesmen inquire as to who might take his place instead.
“It must be Churchill.”
The scene changes to a bustling house as one servant instructs a new secretary, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) on what Churchill likes to eat and drink, if he likes his dictation typed double- or single-spaced, and on how to anticipate his needs. Layton enters a darkened room in the early morning to begin her first day of work. In the blackness, a red glow ignites, briefly illuminating the darkened face of Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) as he lights his first cigar of the morning. As light diffuses throughout the room, Darkest Hour treats the audience to their first glimpse of Churchill. Gary Oldman lurks somewhere behind the heavy, pale face and large stomach. The actor, a true chameleon, is completely gone. The man that paces the room before the camera might as well be Churchill himself. He speaks, walks, and even emotes as it appears Churchill did.
Gary Oldman’s Churchill is, as he should be, the star of the show. Other actors and actresses, doing a very good job in their own right, orbit around the magnitude of Oldman’s talent. Darkest Hour portrays Churchill at his best and worst. Churchill is running England as the entirety of the British fighting force is trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk. Churchill is Prime Minister when he calls Franklin D. Roosevelt to plead for ships and planes. He grapples with pursuing peace talks with Germany in England’s dire straits. Churchill is also in charge when he orders the civilian fleet across the Channel to pick up the troops, and when he learns that King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) will support him in Parliament. Oldman plays Churchill at these highs and lows masterfully. The audience can read the doubt and the elation on his face and in his gestures. Depending on the time of day, Oldman’s Churchill even appears more or less inebriated—Churchill was known to take a bottle of champagne at breakfast and lunch, and supplement the hours in between with brandy and cigars.
As a film, Darkest Hour is wonderfully shot, acted, and written. Churchill, known as a great orator, is given plenty of opportunities to deliver impassioned speeches to sway political opponents and rally the people. The film also offers a glimpse into the position of the Allies at this time in the war. Those who are not as familiar with the European theater before the entry of the United States will be surprised to learn how close a call the conflict truly was. Darkest Hour shows the fatigue and grim determination on the faces of the generals and the war cabinet. Certainly, there are scenes and characters who were likely exaggerated for cinematic effect, but nothing feels forced or out of place for the characters that have been shown throughout the film.
While an Oscar-bait movie that has some tangential relation to World War II is nothing new at this time, and even a story about Churchill has been done before and done well, Darkest Hour feels fresh and enjoyable. This is likely due to Oldman’s stand-out performance, but the movie isn’t far behind the actor in quality.
Featured Image by Focus Features