We seem to have had a proliferation of Winston Churchill depictions in recent years, from John Lithgow’s much praised performance on The Crown to Brian Cox’s slightly less successful portrayal in Churchill earlier last year. It was inevitable that we would return to the part of his life most cemented in the public consciousness: those days between his rise to power, and perhaps his greatest and most celebrated moment, the miracle at Dunkirk and the iconic speech that followed, this time seen through the eyes of director Joe Wright.
Darkest Hour is what I would call an ‘E-shaped’ film. While it provided its peaks—particularly in the much lauded Churchill performance—it fell noticeably flat in places. This is director Joe Wright’s second World War effort after 2007’s Atonement, which is set slightly after the events of this film. The film begins with the fall of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (played like a mirror-image by Ronald Pickup) and the ascension of Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman), taking with him his new secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James). The rest of the film focusses on the conflict that unfolds between Viscount Halifax’s (Stephen Dillane) and Chamberlain’s calls for a peace deal with Hitler’s Germany, and Churchill’s insistence that ‘you cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth’.
Gary Oldman is almost unrecognisable beneath the brilliant makeup by Kazuhiro Tsuji, who transforms the slight actor into the impressively jowled and balding PM. Oldman does his bit too – at no point during the film did I see anyone other than Winston Churchill himself striding about the screen; his Oscar nod this year (while predictable) is well deserved. Nominated too are the production and costume designers, whose efforts provide a vibrant and realistic depiction of wartime London, in particular a strikingly true to life recreation of the cabinet war rooms.
The cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel is well done and emphasises just how alone and conflicted Churchill was during his difficult first month in power. Twice in the film we see him alone in a tiny box as the camera pulls out to reveal empty darkness surrounding him. It is in the moments when Churchill begins to doubt his once strongly held convictions and hopes, when words, ever his weapon of choice, fail to come, that Gary Oldman really shines. At the rare times we leave Churchill’s side, we are shown landscapes ravaged by war, shot top down like a map on a table; there is one particularly effective transition between a muddied plain and a fallen soldier.
The film does well to mention some of Churchill’s less salubrious points too: the disaster at Gallipoli, his opposition to Indian independence, and particularly his support of Edward VII and Wallis Simpson – a sore point between Churchill and his successor George VI (Ben Mendelsohn). Lighting effectively punctuates this moment, driving a literal wedge of light between the two characters as they meet for the first time at Buckingham Palace.
However, with about 20 minutes to go, when Winston escapes the confines of his car at a convenient traffic light and heads into the Underground to get a feeling for the views of the common folk of London, we are treated to a scene so on the nose it might as well be a red rubber beach ball. There he finds a tableau of hideously caricatured figures which claim to represent the people of London; they speak as one, and wield a combination of good old English poetry and aggressive earthiness. The fact that this episode is at loosely based in reality fails to alleviate its forced feeling and contrived attempt at diverting out attentions away from Churchill’s less than stellar foreign relations.
It is at this point that the film really lost me. When Winston strides into Parliament and rallies his outer cabinet to his side, and then goes on to deliver his most famous speech to adulation from both sides of the Commons, it is not without a sense that the significance of the moment as part of the story has been lost entirely. Where is the vindication of Churchill’s faith in the Dunkirk plan? The war cabinet’s realisation that the plan they refused to support has not only saved the entire British army, but quite possibly the free world? When Chamberlain’s final downfall occurs, it is with a sigh and sense of resigned support. Churchill’s victory may be more important to the film than that of the British people, but cinematically it lacks the gravitas and emotional climax that a focus on the many, not the few, would provide.
So in summary: Darkest Hour is a well-made but flawed film. The tension built throughout ultimately leads to a disappointing climax which very much falls flat. While the main cast is generally excellent, in particular Gary Oldman and Kristin Scott Thomas (underused as Clementine Churchill), the peripheral characters are weak, poorly written and poorly motivated. The production design and camera-work is easy to appreciate, but the writing and pacing brings the film down. The result is a sweet but somewhat air-brushed historical drama which ends on an unfulfilling note.