Today was my first trip to the cinema in 2018, a year that has some very promising films coming up. And it certainly got off to a strong start with the excellent Darkest Hour, a film which is attracting many accolades and nominations as we enter Awards Season, most notably for Gary Oldman’s lead performance as British Prime Minster Winston Churchill.
The film takes place over a few dramatic weeks in May 1940: with the Second World War underway, and Nazi Germany about to invade western Europe, Parliament has lost faith in Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and pressures him to resign. Despite some misgivings, King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) selects Churchill as Chamberlain’s successor. In the days that follow, the Nazis make their move, the French appear powerless to stop them, and the British forces on the continent are cornered – and it’s Churchill who has to decide what to do about it. As if he didn’t have enough to deal with, many people around him – most notably Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane, whom Game of Thrones fans will recognise as Stannis Baratheon) – argue against his uncompromising stance, and would rather try to make peace with Hitler than risk annihilation.
Darkest Hour spends little time actually portraying the fighting in Europe; that’s for other films to do, like last year’s Dunkirk. It’s both a historical film and a political thriller, and it works very well in both ways. The audience is made to understand just how frightening the threat of Hitler was to Britain at this point in time, without the benefit of hindsight; those arguing for diplomacy can sound pretty reasonable even as we root for the obstinate Winston. The film has a great British flavour to it, and despite the subject matter, it isn’t overly grim; there are some funny moments, like Churchill shouting at Lord Halifax, “Don’t interrupt me when I’m in the middle of interrupting you!” There are some little flaws in the script: occasionally we get characters spouting forced exposition about Churchill’s background and personal habits; and the third act feels a little too Hollywood after what has come before, with the hero doubting himself until he gets a stirring pep talk from the right people.
Gary Oldman, probably not the first person that most of us would think of to play Churchill, deserves all the credit that he’s getting for his performance. He is certainly made to look the part, particularly when he’s got his hat on and a cigar in his mouth. He carries himself like a portly 65-year-old, stiff and often breathless. And he conveys the personality of Churchill superbly. His first scene – where he has breakfast in bed while answering phone calls and dictating to his new secretary, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) – is fairly comical, but also establishes his busy brain and his curmudgeonly side, as he ends up reducing poor Miss Layton to tears. Throughout the film, he often appears old-fashioned and overly idealistic when it comes to the war, but his stubbornness remains admirable. Oldman is given the job of carrying the film – most of the side characters, such as King George, and Winston’s wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), don’t have too much screen time by comparison – and he does it without stumbling.
Utilising its historical source with great effectiveness and few mistakes, Darkest Hour is a safe, solid, and inspiring film. Rating: 4.5/5.