The first question to ask about Darkest Hour is Do we actually need another film about Winston Churchill? The answer is clearly yes. Despite there being two other major portrayals of the man in the last year ( The Crown on Netflix and the Brian Cox movie Churchill). This film is vital in a number of ways. it explores a short period of British history that still seems relevant today and it also gives modern audiences a flavour of what the real Churchill was like behind the impressive public persona.
It is the early days of the second world war. The British government is in turmoil. Neville Chamberlain, the sitting prime minister , has lost the support of parliament and the only acceptable successor to the opposition party is Winston Churchill. Amid much bickering and protestation he is installed as the new head of the government. His very first duties in the hot seat are twofold. He is faced with a ministerial cabinet that is urging that he sue for peace with Hitler. This notion fills him with dread as he has seen just what sort of man the German leader is. His other problem is trying to get four hundred thousand Allied soldiers to safety from the beaches of Dunkirk.
In the lead up to the release all of the attention was on the central performance by Gary Oldman. There was a real danger that the film would be overpowered by his performance. Churchill is a larger than life figure and as such the screen versions of him tend to dominate to the detriment of supporting characters, plot and mood. To bring such a well-known character to the screen and engage with the audience is a monumental task, one that Oldman is more than up for. He is simply superb. He presents a portrayal of the man that we rarely see. Here is a Churchill that is full of energy (between naps) and is essentially at his peak. Where other versions emphasise the inner conflict of the man resulting in a certain grumpiness and lethargy, here his traits are mixed with more lightness and normality.
Oldman is virtually unrecognisable. The prosthetics and make up are truly exceptional. Sometimes it is a burden to the actors as they are forced to over perform due to the limitations of the covering. Here it looks totally natural. This allows Oldman to give a layered and nuanced performance that while it fills the screen it is never overpowering and avoids the pitfalls of a caricatured take on Churchill.
The director, Joe Wright, allows space for Oldman to do his thing safe in the knowledge that the film he has constructed around him is can more than accommodate the portrayal. The story and the film in general is more than strong enough to be seen as more than just a vehicle for Gary Oldman’s talents. Most of the drama takes place in rooms with men sitting across a table talking (or shouting) at each other. The way that each scene is staged means that there is no repetition. The editing brings tension to them which emphasises the story and helps the audience get a handle on the various characters in the room. There is real tension on display which keeps the audience engaged and never bored.
Even with a strong central performance there is a real need for equally compelling supporting players. The cast is all uniformly good with a number of well-known actors of real class. Ben Mendelhson is a highlight as the reserved King George. His scenes with Oldman are the driving force behind the movement of the story. In a very subtle way the y set up the drama that follows. Mendelhson understands that he doesn’t have to match such a large performance and as such takes it down a slightly quieter route with George coming across as a man who has own troubles but has a firm grasp on what really matters.
Kirsten Scott Thomas is just as good as Clemmie. She is more than just his wife in that she is his rock, his companion and his most trusted advisor. She is the one who draws him out of his despair when the conflicting problems facing his first few weeks in power look set to smother him. As with other cast members, the performance is deliberately not as big as Oldman simply for the reason that two larger than life characters is a distraction in this type of drama. It is a small but vital role which really deserves more plaudits than it is currently receiving.
Overall, a tense and thoughtful drama that features another superb performance from Gary Oldman.