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.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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April 2024