When it comes to magnetic, complicated historical figures that TV and film love to depict, few hold up to the British Bulldog himself, Winston Churchill. He’s linked to one of the most dramatic periods in history (World War II), and his porcine figure, irascible sense of humor, and trembling vocal timbre make him a unique challenge for any actor.
The man has benefited from a long history of screen depictions; just last year, John Lithgow delivered his Emmy-winning Winnie in Netflix’s The Crown. Now it’s Gary Oldman’s turn, and the Oscar-thirsty thespian has teamed up with Joe Wright (Atonement) for Darkest Hour, a compelling if overly simplistic dive into the man no one trusted to save the Kingdom.
The year is 1940. Hitler’s army rages across Europe, and the public is unsatisfied with Neville Chamberlain’s (Ronald Pickup) leadership as Prime Minister. After he resigns to make room for the young upstart Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), who promptly turns down the position, Winston Churchill (Oldman) is appointed PM to the chagrin of the rest of the establishment, including the pompous King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), who wants to replace him with Halifax as soon as he can. Churchill is beset on all sides with resistance as the Axis creeps ever further toward England, with cries of appeasement growing louder as the German army traps the bulk of the British Army at Dunkirk. From that weakened position, Churchill must fight tooth and nail to lift the spirits of the British people, and keep them from losing the war.
All this political infighting and wartime drama is just window dressing for Oldman’s performance as Churchill, and it’s one for the books. Rather than mute the PM’s broader affectations, Oldman leans hard into them to great effect, his raspy growl and hunched posture evoking the real Churchill whilst elevating his bold, blowhard personality in every single scene. It takes a while to get used to him and his Winston Klump prosthetics, but before long he disappears into the role completely. At one point, Oldman gets to quote Shakespeare while playing Winston Churchill, which must be at the top of every British actor’s bucket list. It’s a breathtakingly effective performance that will predictably see Oldman nominated for an Oscar once again. God willing, he’ll win it this time.
While it’s Oldman’s show through and through, the supporting cast gamely accompanies him on this journey through the halls of Parliament and the Cabinet war rooms. Mendelsohn’s King George suffers from comparisons to The Crown as much as Oldman does, but his regal stiffness and comic timing (especially in his scenes with Oldman) is impeccable. Kristin Scott Thomas shines as the supportive cipher Clementine Churchill, hiding her resentment at being thrust into public life behind a stiff upper lip and a stiffer drink. However, Lily James, as Churchill’s secretary Elizabeth Layton, gets even less to do than the rest in Winston’s considerable orbit, mostly sitting around making starry eyes at Churchill as he makes history.
That feeling of gawking with adoration at history in the making is the impression Wright instills most throughout Darkest Hour. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel makes a meal out of what’s ostensibly an elevated chamber drama, lighting Downing Street and Parliament with looming shadows and smoky shafts of light to convey the sheer scale of these austere locales. Scenes and acts transition into one other via stock footage and brief glimpses of war, with big, bold dates ticking past like an old flip-clock to lend each day a new sense of gravity. Wright and Delbonnel confine Churchill to boxes and frames – one shot features Winston in an elevator, climbing up through an inky abyss to reach his destination – to convey the claustrophobia of his controversial position. Yet when Churchill reaches the heights of his rhetoric in Parliament or over the radio, Wright leans in close to get a good look at his subject, Oldman’s face masked in blood-red ‘On Air’ lights. As with most of Wright’s period work, it’s gorgeously textured and impeccably costumed, and isn’t afraid to let you know it.
Darkest Hour does have its flaws, mostly in that it arrives on the back of so many other haughty, costume-heavy WWII dramas before it. By focusing on the aristocrats and ministers on the sidelines, Wright divorces his characters from the war they’re discussing by design, which sometimes leaves the film unsatisfying. Darkest Hour spends so much time as an actor’s showcase for Oldman that it oftentimes forgets to remind the audience of the ongoing war around him. However, despite the film’s occasionally languid pace, Wright imbues enough urgency through Oldman to maintain an undercurrent of tension throughout the film’s two-hour runtime.
Its biggest point of contention emerges in the way it lionizes Churchill, whose views and legacy are…complicated, to say the least. It’s funny that one of his most famous quotes is “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter,” when onscreen, he rediscovers his love for the British people after sneaking onto the London Underground to do exactly that. While it’s a refreshing change in tone and pace, that scene is one of the more manipulative and pandering moments in a film otherwise unafraid of making Churchill unlikable. (Oh, and of course there’s a single black man on the train, so we can forget that Churchill was the kind of guy who referred to Indians as “beastly people with a beastly religion.”) No man is a monolith, of course, and it would be irresponsible of Darkest Hour to invalidate Churchill’s accomplishments because of his personal flaws. But these aspects complicate the man in a way that Wright and company seem reticent to present, their laser-focus on WWII and Dunkirk preventing them from offering a more three-dimensional version of the character.
Darkest Hour might make for an interesting double feature with Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk: both cover the same events, but from opposite ends of the English Channel. As a wartime drama, it’s serviceable; as a showcase for Gary Oldman’s chameleonic talents, it’s a triumph. A masterful caricature of a man who veered toward caricature in real life, Oldman’s intensity and skill elevate this, the umpteenth WWII-Churchill drama in as many years, to something special.