It’s easy to portray Winston Churchill in a heroic light with the benefit of hindsight. Darkest Hour reveals how isolated he was when he accepted the post of Prime Minister in 1940 and expressed his firm belief in waging war against Hitler to the bitter end. He had virtually no support and was surrounded by formidable foes. This ambitious film takes what we know as history and captures the immediacy and uncertainty of that fateful period.
Director Joe Wright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten take us inside Churchill’s world—a dark place, for the most part. If you’ve ever visited the Imperial War Museum in London you know how authentic this is. Strategies were argued and crucial decisions made in this claustrophobic atmosphere, in a nest of rooms and narrow corridors buried underground.
What Wright and McCarten can’t completely overcome is the sheer volume of talk in their historical drama. Superior production design (by Sarah Greenwood) and cinematography (by Bruno Delbonnel) help. So do the excellent performances by Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI, Stephen Dillane as Lord Halifax, Kristin Scott Thomas as Churchill’s indomitable wife Clementine, and Lily James as his long-suffering but loyal secretary.
But the real strength of Darkest Hour—and the reason it must be seen—is Gary Oldman. Many good actors have tackled this larger-than-life figure, but in a short space of time, Oldman makes us forget about prosthetic makeup and persuades us that he is the eccentric, mercurial, outspoken 65-year-old legend. He is stubborn but vulnerable, determined but dogged by the fear that he just might be wrong. Powerful men insist that Britain should pursue peace negotiations with Hitler. Churchill bristles at the thought.
A key sequence invented by McCarten exemplifies the cigar-smoking leader’s connection to his people. It struck me as somewhat obvious and contrived, but it leads to one of Churchill’s greatest speeches, and this is where the Prime Minister shone. It is one of the main reasons he is remembered so well, and Oldman gives us Churchill the Orator on a silver platter. One could hardly ask for finer material from any screen biography.