Darkest Hour is built like an antique grandfather clock. Each element a carefully placed necessity, working dutifully towards a larger schema; every cog, screw and dial essential to its almost impossibly precise workmanship. Ticking and tocking in a grand manner, Darkest Hour is an expertly paced and admirably assembled sample of good old fashion filmmaking gifted with a lead performance from Gary Oldman that will almost certainly not just be remembered come next year’s award’s season but is sure to be a well-endowed frontrunner.
Picking himself up and dusting himself off after the bold-faced failure that was Pan, Joe Wright captains this cinematic vessel with the artful poise and stately confidence that typically defines his features. As can be expected, Darkest Hour is a sumptuous slice of filmmaking done up with all the fixings; Dario Marianelli’s score a full-blooded and rousing accompaniment; Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography gracefully employing natural light as often as he can then stuffing our faces in the claustrophobic fluorescence of Westminster’s most guarded chambers; Katie Spencer’s sets and Jacqueline Durran’s costumes scream perfection sans all the preening. A contagious snapshot of London 1940.
Exploring the origins of Winston Churchill’s ascension to Prime Minster of the United Kingdom, Wright, working from a screenplay from Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything), does exactly what a movie biographer ought to do. He hones in on a very specific period of Churchill’s life and laser focuses his attention there. This is not the cradle to grave biopic that attempts to smush a man’s life down to a handful of defining moments. Rather, the events displayed in Darkest Hour occur over the span of the two-and-a-half week period between Churchill’s appointment to the position and the events of the successful civilian-manned evacuation at Dunkirk.
Darkest Hour is a curio in that despite appearances, it is far from the stuffy, dragging, talky historical drama it probably looks to be, Wright keeping the affairs almost shockingly rousing throughout. There is never a dull moment as Wright maintains a perfect balance of global scale threats (Nazi Germany on the precipice of conquering the entirety of Western Europe), impending disasters on a national level (the whole of the British army trapped in Dunkirk with no apparent escape) and the micro-scale interpersonal tribulations of Churchill (facing opposition from his own party, the leadership of which is actively trying to dismantle his legitimacy as a leader.) Striking a fine balance between these three focal points, Wright, as Churchill before him, thrives; channeling a resiliency of storytelling that mimics the film’s subject. Just one of these things would likely lead even the toughest of men to slump over and crumble in defeat but somehow Churchill takes it all in stride with Darkest Hour’s ability to tell the multiplicity of this particularly onerous chapter in his life beyond admirable.
It should come as no surprise that Gary Oldman is outstanding in the role, mere glimpses of him in early promotional material assuring audiences and critics groups that we were in for quite a showcase. And showcase it is. Oldman famously spent over 200 hours (that’s eight and a half days, without sleep) in the makeup hair, gaining a hundred pounds of prosthetics to fill the plus-sized shoes of the late great Churchill. Transformation or not, he’s grand in the role, exhibiting the girth of spirit and fortitude of character that defined one of the 20th centuries most unforgettable leaders. As Churchill, Oldman gives a definitively tour de force performance, revealing a rounded character that never feels larger than life despite his larger than life accomplishments. We get to see Winton’s pissy morning snark, his jovial disarmament, his resilience to internal and external pressures and the Father of a Nation qualities that made him such a strong and well-loved leader.
Otherwise the cast is strong; Ben Mendelsohn gives a memorable rendition of the impediment-afflicted King George VI, the role Colin Firth won an Oscar for in 2010; Stephen Dillane makes a strong impression as well-respected but ultimately spineless political opponent Viscount Halifax (who also suffers a bit of a lisp); Kristin Scott Thomas, regal as ever, plays Clementine Churchill, Winston’s strong-willed and doting wife; and Lily James takes up the mantle of Elizabeth Layton, secretary and scribe to Churchill who becomes an unlikely confidante with James getting the juiciest role outside of Oldman.
Those who enjoyed Christopher Nolan’s action-oriented depiction of similar events in this year’s earlier release Dunkirk will find Darkest Hour an essential companion piece. Examining the drastically dire situation from a different angle, Darkest Hour fills in the political skirmishes and backroom showdowns that ultimately led to Dunkirk’s successful evacuation and for as thrilling and visceral Dunkirk is, Darkest Hour does a phenomenal job of summoning similarly tightrope tension. Dunkirk was such a shot of adrenaline by nature of its ability to juggle three different timelines all contributing to a larger story and in many ways Darkest Hour accomplishes a similar task. It may not be Wright’s best film (that honor likely goes to Atonement) nor is it his most exciting (I’m a huge Hannah stan personally) and it’s very far from his lower-tier material (The Soloist, Pan) but Darkest Hour sees the English auteur flexing his muscles in new and exciting ways, turning historical nonfiction into a calculated character study, an intoxicating courtroom drama and an electrifying thriller in its own right. Darkest Hour doesn’t focus on the battlefront per se but the war of words struck between its subjects provides no shortage of casualties, with Winston Churchill invariably escaping bruised but victorious and a fully committed Gary Oldman at the very forefront of the charge.
CONCLUSION: ‘Darkest Hour’ sees director Joe Wright back on top of his game directing Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill to one of his finest onscreen roles. More importantly, the film that houses that performance is not only a sumptuous feast for the eyes but proves surprisingly kinetic; full of life, energy and wit, working from an excellent and tightly-wound script and delivering the promise of an essential glimpse into the historical figure’s most perilous trials.