Written By: Nigel Asipa
Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour and Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk compliment one another, as Darkest Hour acts as something of an unofficial prequel to the harrowing, almost hopeless efforts of the British Armed Forces of escaping the might of the Germans in the spring of 1940.
Whilst Dunkirk served to demonstrate the communal spirit of the British nation and is less character driven, Darkest Hour is more concerned with showing that same spirit through the eyes of one Winston Churchill. His speeches throughout that time uplifted the nation to fend off against Hitler’s tyrannical grasp and soon led to the eventual yield of the Germans in 1945.
For national interest, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) is asked by members of Parliament to step down as prime minister for the sake of restoring peace in Europe. When discussed who should replace him, Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) is considered a shoo-in for the role, but he respectfully declines. Chamberlain mentions there is only one who is worthy of such a position and everyone isn’t exactly thrilled with the mention.
Seemingly unprepared and not having the most stable record, Churchill (Gary Oldman) is tasked by King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) to take up the duty as prime minister, although he unabashedly shows his dismay of the matter as Churchill has full support from the opposition. More than willing to accept, he assures Parliament and his country of the victory and liberty that awaits while also addressing the weight and urgency of the contention they have against Hitler.
Fully aware of the distrust many have of him (especially since the Gallipoli campaign), Churchill sets to prove his stronghold of the matter except his wild, brutish personality puts him at odds with his war cabinet. With the Armed Forces being pummelled by the Germans, the cabinet is willing to enter peace negotiations with Hitler. Churchill is having none of it as he asserts how Hitler knows nothing of peace and would rather fight till the end than cost the independence of his country. After all “you cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth”.
The one who can truly level Churchill and match his bite is the sturdy, loving wife that is Clementine (played by the luminous Kristin Scott Thomas) and evokes strength and willpower from her husband. But the conspiracy to remove him from office and the ever-growing threat of Britain being swallowed by darkness.
Earlier last year we had Brian Cox’s turn in Churchill and John Lithgow’s interpretation of the larger than life figure in Netflix’s The Crown. Cox is superb in everything he’s in and I’m sure he gave a marvellous portrayal but I missed it back in June of last year. Lithgow was vulnerable and cantankerous but layered with dignifying grace that made his casting both surprising and satisfying.
Perhaps one of the world’s most respected and accomplished thespians, Gary Oldman has made a career of taking on colourful roles that best showcase his versatility and chameleon-esque proficiency. Kudos to makeup designer Kazuhiro Tsuji for the amazing prosthetics to have Oldman truly disappear into a role that requires quite a lot of movement. Beyond that, Oldman shows tremendous focus as he dynamically shows Churchill’s tolerance, honesty and passion. The female characters aren’t nearly as nuanced as they should be, with Lily James’ secretary Elizabeth Layton kind of uninteresting but at least serviceable, Clementine also.
Not just the diction but the physicality is fascinating, from his laboured breathing to his slight stammer. The rotund, monumental figure is given a well-rounded characterisation by someone who respects the might and humanity of one the 20th centuries most crucial figures.
Joe Wright frames his subjects up close to make them appear bigger than necessary as well as glide through various corridors to give it an almost stage play aesthetic to further heighten the theatricality. There’s a couple of moments where while Churchill is being chartered through the streets, he slows things down to have Churchill presumably pay attention to the lives of the people as he contemplates his every retaliation and impulse on the effect it then has on them that could either damn or save them.