TL;DR – A beautifully realised look at the world of British politics on the onset of WW2, but it loses some of its impact with an unclear portrayal of its central protagonist.
Score – 3.5 out of 5 stars
Post-Credit Scene – No
Well, today we are looking at our third Dunkirk related film in the last year. Dunkirk (see review) looked at the retreat on the ground, sea, and air, Their Finest (see review) looked at how Britain used the retreat to mobilise the populace, and now Darkest Hour looks at the politics behind it all. Today we are exploring the rise of Winston Churchill from being an outsider of the political spectrum to a wartime ruler facing the might of Hitler and his European blitzkrieg. So in today’s review, we are going to look at the acting and how it captured that moment in time.
So to set the scene, it is the darkest hour Brittan has probably faced since that Spanish Armada that never made it to shore. All across Europe, the Nazi war machine is pushing past defences in Denmark, Norway, Netherlands, Belgium, and France is now in full retreat. In the British Parliament Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) is facing immense pressure to resign after the woefully handling of the Hitler problem (though to be fair to Neville we have the benefit of hindsight, and later released document shows just how little choices he had to deal with the issue). For the Conservatives, there is only one option Edward Wood 3rd Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane). Well, he does not want it, as he is biding his time waiting for all to fall apart before he rushes in, also there is the whole House of Lords thing, and hey the UK come on an unelected House of Parliament still come on, oh and I see you too Canada. So there is only one politician left that both sides of Parliament will support, welcome Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. So with Brittan facing the loss of their entire Army on the shores of Dunkirk, Winston has to battle enemies in his own party, a King, George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), who does not trust him, his own inexperience coming to bear, and also a new personal secretary Elizabeth Nel (Lily James) who doesn’t double space, so you know disasters everywhere.
So, of course, the first thing we have to talk about is the fascinating job that everyone did to create the character of Winston Churchill. What is really interesting about the portrayal of Winston Churchill is that it is twofold, part of it is the immense practical makeup and the other is the performance of Gary Oldman who is almost unrecognisable under all the prosthetics they have used. The practical side to Winston Churchill is made up of so many facets. First, you have the bulky fat suit, the layers of clothing, the facial prosthetics, the hair, the jowls, everything. It must have taken hours of work to put the costume together each morning and hours to take it all off at the end of the filming day. As well as this physical transformation, you have to marvel at Gary Oldman’s performance. It is in every movement, every word, every gesture, and every nuance. Look there is a reason Gary Oldman is up for an Oscar and that is because his work here is unparalleled. Of course, there is a question about why is physical prosthetics fine for an Oscar nomination but digital augmentation isn’t, but that is a question for another day.
Another strong factor with the film is the strength of the setting and Darkest Hour does this in a number of ways. The obvious one is the time counter that shows how fast the blitzkrieg is happening across the European continent, which shows just how little time they had to deal with the growing dilemma. More than this, there are more subtitle ways that the film creates this setting. You see this in the way that food portions start to shrink across the film, how the people become more and more anxious, the way London starts to prepare for the invasion, the desperate push for a peace deal, and the men fighting knowing that there is no retreat. As well as this, all the costumes and set decorations are full of details from the period and help create the world of WW2. Add to this really strong performances from the supporting cast and it all combines together to create a compelling narrative, well at least at the start.
However, there is one area of Darkest Hour that just didn’t quite work for me and that is how they portrayed the historical Winston Churchill. Now yes Gary Oldman’s performance is amazing and I’m not talking about that, I’m talking about how he is portrayed in the narrative. I think they were going for something more than just a chronological telling of the story, they are trying to say something about the time and the character, but they could not decide what that was. Who is Winston Churchill in the film? Is he the champion of the people, is he an old toff addicted to cigars and champagne, is he a dullard that can’t comprehend the oncoming storm, is he a strategic master able to chart his way through the calamity, or his he all of this. I think the film was going for a complicated character but because of the short run time they just didn’t have to time to fully develop this. These issues are highlighted in one moment at towards the end of the film, which was at best silly, but at worst disingenuous, and of course, there will be [SPOILERS] here. On the way to the meeting that will define Britain’s response to the war, Winston Churchill jumps out the back of his car and takes an underground train to Westminster. While on the train he talks to the common people who give him the drive to discount the peace talks. First, this never happened in real life, which is annoying but also more importantly what was it there for? Was it so he could have a win, was it so he could be a man of the people, well it just kind of felt that they were trying to wrap up the film and this was the easiest way of doing it.
In the end, do we recommend Darkest Hour? Yes, indeed, you should go see it just to watch Gary Oldman’s amazing performance. Nevertheless, is it a perfect film? No, and not is it not even the best Dunkirk film of the last year. It was however, fascinating to watch and it is a period of history I think more people would be better if they understood it more, so catch it in cinemas whilst it is still there.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Darkest Hour
Directed by – Joe Wright
Written by – Anthony McCarten
Music by – Dario Marianelli
Cinematography by – Bruno Delbonnel
Edited by – Valerio Bonelli
Starring – Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn, Lily James, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane, Nicholas Jones, Samuel West, David Schofield, Richard Lumsden, Malcolm Storry, Hilton McRae, Benjamin Whitrow, Joe Armstrong, Adrian Rawlins, David Bamber & David Strathairn
Rating – Australia: PG; Canada: PG; Germany: 6; New Zealand: PG; United Kingdom: PG; United States: PG