Starring Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ronald Pickup. Directed by Joe Wright.
Cinema loves an underdog. The little guy against a big guy. Triumphing over insurmountable odds. It’s why the story of World War II looms large over cinema. The story of Winston Churchill is a story of saying no when the world says yes.
There’s no point retreading the history of the story, we are pretty much born knowing the story, of how the UK stood up to the strength of the Nazi threat and brought about a war for good.
From a political standpoint, Darkest Hour treads a short period of time, covering the month that saw Winston Churchill become Prime Minister and battle the tricky decision of whether or not Britain should go to war. As far as the film is concerned, this is just a political backdrop to the story of a man in turmoil. The film is being pegged as a triumphant story of the United Kingdom, but in that respect, the film fails, because it’s not really about patriotism or politics.
What the film is really about is a man. Gary Oldman dominates the role of Churchill, and it’s easy to see why. Like all of Oldman’s best work, it’s about voice, costume, and inner turmoil. His Churchill is as much a triumph of his prowess as an actor as George Smiley, Beethoven, Dracula or Stansfield. Oldman is a true actors actor and he is long long overdue an Oscar win, considering he has only one nomination currently to his name. His profile and manner look properly like Churchill, even if his voice isn’t entirely Churchill-esque.
In his performance, the film has sure footing, a strong force of nature going on through the film as the rest of it fails to find sufficient political excitement. Perhaps that’s a function of it being a history piece. However, what this film has going for it, in the same way as Margeret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady, was politically unfocused and messy but bolstered by a performance that dominated everything else around it.
The film doesn’t, however, find anything new to tell us about the near-mythic Churchill. We know he suffered from depression, and Darkest Hour does hint at the inner struggle of his mental illness. we know he was bullheaded, and we know his wife was the calmer more rational one. This isn’t a film like Downfall which dared to take the mythic monster of Adolf Hitler and humanise his last days, this is a monument in that the performance is pretty much a monument to the man himself.
That’s not to say that there aren’t things to like in the film as a whole; there is a joy in watching great actors perform at their best, with Oldman leading the way. The period detail is very good, and Joe Wright knows how to direct. Having messed up with a terrible Pan film and perhaps the worst Black Mirror episode to date, this is him at his stylish best making the inner workings of parliament being claustrophobic.
The writing is fairly ripe, but there are really good moments. After all, it’d be impossible to make a film about a brilliant wordsmith and not have lines and moments that work really well. A scene in which aids talk to Churchill as he is in the toilet leads to a funny back and forth. “What shall we do about the privy seal?” “Tell them I am sealed in the privy, and I am only able to deal with one shit at a time.” The trailer does a disservice to some of the better gags; Kristin Scott Thomas’ underused Clementine trying to jeer Churchill up for his meeting with Ben Mendelsohn’s King George, or his great line “will you stop interrupting me while I am interrupting you.”
There is also a clear love by Oldman and Wright for the famous speeches, his first speech the “blood, toil, tears and sweat” speech is an incredible tour-de-force. Even better is the “fight them on the beaches” possibly the greatest ever speech given by a human being. It’s not hard to see why Oldman is up for all the awards because it’s what keeps the film going when it falls into a boring holding pattern.
Unlike The Iron Lady, Downfall or last-years Churchill, it doesn’t take the mythic figure and turn them into a human, instead, it plays the man like a heroic character. The man who saw the threat before it showed it’s true colours, said no to the naysayers, and stood strong.
Even if the film falls into the strangest of apparently “true” moments of Churchill talking to the people on a tube, it works because it has an emotional truth. Much like the flowers scene in The Queen, it holds an importance for those who have invested emotion into the character of Churchill even if it stretches the world of fact.
Even so, this is the best Oldman has been since the 90s, with a juicy role to sink his teeth into, even if the rest of the cast are left wanting something with as much substance. Come awards season, come Oscar night, Gary Oldman might be flicking the V for Victory sign.
Paul Klein is a Film Studies Graduate from London, former writer at The Metropolist.