Dir. Joe Wright
Starring: Gary Oldman, Lily James, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Ben Medelsohn, Ronald Pickup, and Stephen Dillane.
Joe Wright is a curious director. Hailed as a visionary by many, his CV is an eclectic mix of action movie (Hanna), fantasy romp (Pan), and futuristic television (he directed the episode Nosedive for Black Mirror). Wright always comes back though, to what could be described as his bread and butter, historical dramas. It’s in period pieces such as Pride and Prejudice, and Atonement where Wright really made his name. Here, he returns to the well once again, in fact the most famous shot in Wrights career was the Dunkirk beach sequence in Atonement, the events of which this movie is based around. It’s a return to form after the bizarre mess that was Pan, and sees the director pair one of Britains greatest ever actors with one of its most iconic men.
Darkest Hour starts with the resignation of Neville Chamberlain, a war time Prime Minister who has lost the support of the house. The Conservative party decide to place Winston Churchill in charge, a man who whilst controversial within his own party would have the support of the Labour Party. Churchill is elected at the beginning of May 1940, and the film tells the trials and tribulations of his first month as PM. He has to deal with a Europe which is slowly succumbing to the onslaught from Nazi Germany, the crisis at Dunkirk, and dissent from within his own party, who are looking to oust him if he doesn’t consider peace talks with Hitler.
It’s almost unavoidable to talk about this film and not mention the acting. Gary Oldman gives us a true masterclass in the craft. Joe Wright and Oldman blend make-up, acting, writing, and direction together to portray a completely believable, absorbing character. At first you marvel at the job that Oldman is doing, and then you forget it’s Gary Oldman, for the next hour and a half you are watching Winston Churchill. Oldman doesn’t just play the icon though, he imbues Churchill with a humanity. If the blustering speeches get the headlines, it’s Oldman’s work at showing us the frailty of the man which is truly spectacular. Wright surrounds Oldman with fantastic actors as well. Lily James is wonderful, but it’s Kristin Scott-Thomas and Ben Medelsohn who really shine, having a huge impact with very little screen time. Scott-Thomas, as Churchill’s wife portraying the stoic nature of her sacrifice, and the love she has for her husband. Mendelsohn as King George, putting in an understated but moving performance.
Wright makes the history and politics easy to follow, and accessible. It’s a character piece which takes it cues from Shakespearean plays, and the stories of Roman emperors. The action is confined to the war room, and to the back stabbing political world. The war is reduced to aerial shots, offering us context to Churchill’s inner turmoil. It’s in Wright’s direction that the film excels. For a film whose characters actions have such wide spread global repercussions, Wright keeps it incredibly claustrophobic. It’s mostly shot inside, with very little light. Wright takes joy in juxtaposing Churchill’s political position with that of his nation. See how the camera gets tighter on Churchill’s face as both the fate of those at Dunkirk gets more dire, and his party push him towards peace talks; or how he frames a telephone call between Churchill and President Roosevelt, linking how isolated Churchill had become, and in turn Britain had become. Wright ratchets up the tension to unbearable levels, similar to the feat Christopher Nolan pulled off with Dunkirk.
This is not a flawless film though. Having such a tight focus on just one month of Churchill’s time in office, there will always be avenues you wish had been explored further. Kristin Scott-Thomas does fantastically well with very little, but you do wish this relationship had been explored further. Similarly, Lily James’ Elizabeth Layton, acts as a great entry point for the audience, but you wish she had been given a bit more character. There is also a sequence on an underground train, which has the potential to de-rail the whole film. Although Churchill had a reputation for popping up in different parts of London to speak to the public, there is no evidence of this scene ever taking place. It’s placement in the film feels very convenient, and for a film which had done so much with subtleties, it feels too on the nose. It also destroys the momentum that had been building.
Darkest Hour is a terrific character study of Winston Churchill, and Gary Oldman’s performance will go down as one of the all time greats. Wright uses his film to say some great things about standing behind your convictions, and having courage under fire. It’s about making those hard decisions, to stand behind your principles even if it means complete annihilation. It’s minimalistic in style, but Wright still adds some flourishes, a transition from a bombed battlefield to a fallen soldiers face being a stand out. It’s a well put together film, that can’t help but stumble in places.