Updated: Apr 28
Director – Joe Wright
Writer – Anthony McCarten
Cast – Gary Oldman, Ben Mendelsohn, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane and Ronald Pickup
Plot – It’s May 1940, and Britain is losing the 2nd world war to Germany whom has advanced across mainland Europe and is on the brink of capturing Belgium and France. While British troops are stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk, political battles wage inside the House of Commons as the Conservative government lose faith in current Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and seek to replace him. First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill steps up to take the position but faces not only political backlash, a distrusting King but also schemes to remove him, as he has to raise the spirits of a nation facing complete annihilation from Hitler’s armies.
Over the last year we have had a record number of Winston Churchill performances. Not only was he a supporting character in the massively budgeted Netflix streaming programme The Crown (a critically acclaimed John Lithgow), but also was the focus of the self titled Churchill (played with terrific sincerity by Brian Cox) and now here he is again but performed by a barely recognisable Gary Oldman.
To avoid drawing comparisons is almost futile, given the short amount of time between both film releases. However, last year’s title focused more on Churchill’s medical illnesses, depression and even showed him as a bit of a ranting hindrance to the British leaders as well as General Eisenhower with decisions taken against his will and him seemingly having less influence in the events that history lessons would have us believe. It did draw criticism for this element although Cox’s performance was universally praised for bringing vulnerability to the character.
Anthony McCarten and Joe Wright’s version is a more satisfactory middle ground on the character of Churchill. We still get the mumbling, the hunched look of melancholy as well as bad tempered rants bordering on cruelty at times (you will feel all sorts of sympathy for his poor typists) and he is shown as a very unpopular figure within political circles. However, he displays more positivity and significance in relation to strategic planning which is more aligned with the legacy that we are familiar.
Unlike Cox’s method-like decision to pile on the weight to resemble the man, Oldman wore a fat suit and endured over 50 days of extensive make-up and prosthetics to enter the unhealthy, fry-up eating, cigar-smoking world of the former prime minister. And the hard work has paid off with a captivating performance; a showcase of his ability to morph into whatever role he chooses and makes it seem effortless. It may be aiming for Oscar buzz but at least delivers to be worthy of the nomination.
Accompanying him are some great supporting characters. Kristin Scott Thomas is the put-upon, occasionally frustrated wife Clementine (or Clemy, as he calls her). It’s a role we have seen many times in similar dramas (quite literally when Miranda Richardson played her last year) but she at least gives Oldman something to work with, her Clemy being a great foil for his grumpy mood swings and allowing us to get a glimpse into the sacrifices a wife of a prime minister endures. Last year’s version showed the relationship as an unhappy one and Clemy as a wife stuck with a man she was falling out of love with every bellowing political rant, yet Thomas’ version is more supportive. Although she will shut him down when required, she will also share tender moments which add levity to a film which is unsurprisingly on the dour side.
Churchill’s relationship with his new typist (Lily James) is also great to watch, as he initially scorns her for using double sided lines when she types his speeches and then later as he thaws around her there is a great moment of shared sadness as they both consider the realities the country faces.
Ben Mendelsohn rounds out a strong cast as King George VI and he shares some great scenes with the newly appointed prime minister, as they both reluctantly meet every week for dinner; the differences between the two almost hilarious as the King sits with perfect posture, a symbol of elegance and class across from a stooped cigar chomping, whisky swilling Churchill who looks like he would be more at ease down the local pub.
Wright’s film is a tough reminder that Britain really struggled in those first few years of the war and that we actually faced losing to the axis, which may be hard to imagine for those that never lived through it. There is a feeling of hopelessness that pervades over the film, as politicians genuinely consider surrendering to the Germans in order to get a better deal. As well as that, most scenes are shot in tight spaces, giving a bunker-like feel which adds to the idea that the situation was becoming graver with every passing day.
Yet not all of it works, unfortunately. The third act stumbles a little as Churchill decides to meet the locals on a subway ride. It comes across as a little forced, slightly corny and is not surprisingly one of the more obviously fabricated sequences. However, it’s one slight amongst a plethora of great moments and performances and doesn’t deter too much from the tone or pacing of the film.
Overall, Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour is a tremendous historical drama which uses its cast superbly, particularly Oldman, to highlight how desperately Great Britain came to losing the war. Although it falters slightly, there is so much to recommend for anyone with a remote interest in the subject and it is arguably the best version of the man on screen today.