Directed by: Joe Wright
It is said that studying the past will better enable us to understand the present and even the future — director Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour is then not only a captivating political drama but one that has a great deal to teach us about our modern world. While this is a story built around British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874-1965), its core message is both timeless and increasingly pertinent: the fight against tyranny and injustice may always be justified, even if sometimes the path to victory is unclear.
Featuring an exceptional lead performance by Gary Oldman as “The Bulldog,” Darkest Hour is a fascinating and compelling work of film that succeeds not just as an intimate biography but as a well-crafted history lesson. History is indeed alive here and even for viewers not versed in the political climate of Britain in the 1940s, the film definitely teaches and sheds light on a crucial existential time for Europe.
In the spring of 1940, Nazi Germany’s plans of domination were well underway; with the impending fall of France and Belgium, the Allied effort against Hitler’s war machine looked bleak. Britain remained the last bastion of freedom in Western Europe but how long would it be before the island would itself be the target of Germany’s advances? Into this turbulent and uncertain time enters Winston Churchill, appointed to the post of Prime Minister by members of his ruling Conservative Party. The choice for Churchill was clear, either negotiate with the enemy during this “darkest hour” or fight them head-on.
Gary Oldman delivers exceptionally as the most exceptional man Winston Churchill; he’s cantankerous and set in his ways, and yet still with a surprising soft spot. Hidden very well under layers of makeup and prosthetics designed by Japanese artist Kazuhiro Tsuji, Oldman embodies this giant of 20th-century politics. With a re-occurring streak of mumbling his speech and dictating his speeches while in his bathrobe, a portrait of an eccentric yet brilliant leader emerges.
In fact the images of the everyday Churchill (in bed, in the washroom, walking around his home barefoot and in pyjamas) serve to humanize what is otherwise a romantic figure; in seeing him this way we learn that greatness doesn’t have to be the stuff of legends but can emerge from the most ordinary or mundane sources. He wasn’t perfect by any means, but he delivered a British spirit of defiance that would play a crucial part in the war against Hitler.
For what he may have lacked in eloquence he more than made up for with passion, intensity, and an indomitable drive. Perhaps to borrow a phrase from the Batman mythos, Churchill wasn’t the hero Britain necessarily wanted but he was the one they needed.
“You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.” – Winston Churchill
It is worthy to consider however that Oldman is not necessarily better in the role than other acclaimed actors in the role of Churchill. Names like John Lithgow, Brian Cox, and Brendan Gleeson have all played the former Prime Minister to their share of acclaim, so saying that Oldman is the ultimate Churchill wouldn’t be totally accurate either. But he is among the strongest and any big award wins would be appropriate gestures.
Though the film is anchored around Oldman’s performance, it also works well on its own in crafting a compelling and informative historical narrative with morals that continue to resonate today. How should the international community react to acts of aggression and war? Is there such a thing as a just war?
Winston Churchill was roundly criticized by many at the time for neglecting peace talks in favor of direct confrontation with the enemy, yet his rousing (if occasionally mumbled) oratory led the British people to embrace the notion of ‘fighting the good fight’. Oppression, whether it be Hitler or any modern conflicts, is always the same and the decision on how to react to it may very well be our defining moments — it certainly was for Churchill.
These historical yet contemporary themes make this a very intelligent film that also informs as much as it entertains. Compared to films like Dunkirk, there is plenty of information and personal connections to attach oneself to; these aren’t just figures from a textbook but people we can actually relate and sympathize with. Screenwriter Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything) has understood the history well and molded it greatly for our modern times.
The movie also shines as a war film that tells the story not from the battlefields, but from the halls of power. Unlike Dunkirk which had great cinematographic vistas, Darkest Hour has a claustrophobic feel. Scenes are set in Churchill’s home, his underground wartime bunker, the British House of Commons, and even inside a train car.
There are very few exterior shots and much of the film is covered in shadows and haze. This is really a brilliant capturing of the mood of wartime and a period of immense uncertainty and these images emphasize the feeling of fear and hopelessness that was encircling Britain and the world.
There are no loud explosions or vividly graphic scenes of violence, yet still with all its political theatre and shrewd maneuverings, this movie proves to be just as thrilling. Of course if one is more inclined to historical matters (as this critic is) it may be more enthralling, but even to casual moviegoers, there should still be plenty to enjoy and take away from this movie even beyond Gary Oldman.
Darkest Hour is a strongly made and commendable work of cinema that succeeds on many fronts. It does indeed lionize Winston Churchill, but it’s how he is humanized that makes the lasting impression and solidifies why the man is still revered to this day. With a terrific performance from Gary Oldman and a story that educates, entertains and really makes us think, it truly is a well-rounded artistic creation.