Movie Review: Darkest Hour
Director: Joe Wright
Writer: Anthony McCarten
by Jason Koenigsberg
Winston Churchill is one of the most vital and dynamic figures of the 20th century… Gary Oldman is one of the most versatile and impeccable British actors of his era. Casting the chameleon-like Oldman as Britain’s most exemplary prime ministers sounds like a match made in heaven. It is… for the most part.
The opening shot displays images of the German army marching and their machines or war getting ready to attack, then jumps right into an overhead shot of Parliament as they call for Neville Chamberlain to resign as Prime Minister after his failed attempts at appeasement with Adolf Hitler. The camera pans down to the speaker vehemently criticizing Chamberlain right in his face. There are a lot of overhead shots in Darkest Hour, some work, others feel unnecessarily repetitive. The cinematography does utilize some spectacular moments of framing and close ups in certain shots. A lot of shots of Churchill isolated and alone framed in small dark squares illustrate his stubbornness as well as his beleaguered segregation from his own cabinet. The use of lighting with smoke and the color red contrasted with black for more dire situations helps illustrate what our main character is thinking and feeling at a given moment.
The set design of Parliament, Chirchill’s underground bunkers and Westminster Abbey are all first rate and help ingratiate the viewer into Churchill’s mind and 1940 England on the brink of war. The way the script and direction work in Darkest Hour makes the movie work as a slow burn. It gets stronger dramatically as the story progresses, slowly building on what came before, creating a solid foundation for the movie to build an impressive structure leading to a triumphant climax.
Gary Oldman is immaculate. The first few scenes with him start off slow, he appears to be just doing a good impersonation of Churchill in a fat suit under heavy latex. But each scene he is in builds on the previous one and by the end of the first hour of the film, the viewer will be convinced that Gary Oldman IS Winston Churchill. He carries the film and since he is in practically every frame he is the biggest reason that Darkest Hour works so eloquently.
The scene that was a turning point for his performance and hence for Darkest Hour itself was a phone conversation between Churchill with President Franklin Roosevelt where he offers very little help to his English allies as the Nazis are right on their doorstep across the channel and could invade their island nation at any moment. Oldman shows so much desperation and strength simultaneously one might think it is the best showcase for the film, but then the subsequent scenes in the bunker and the final moment at Westminster Abbey are just as breathtaking and even more powerful, Darkest Hour emerges as a very absorbing and impressive film.
Another scene of note is one involving Winston Churchill going on the London tube and taking public transportation for the first time in his life. While on the subway he interacts with the commuters and finds out how they feel about the escalating war in Europe. This is probably the most ingratiating scene in Darkest Hour and really makes one wish that President Trump and more elected officials did this more regularly and based their decisions on what the general public wants and not special interest groups.
The weakest elements of Darkest Hour involve everybody but Churchill. Poor Kristin Scott Thomas took what on paper should have been an important role as Clementine Churchill, Winston’s wife, however the final product gave her the short end of the stick. The most important woman of his life behind the scenes was reduced to an under-developed and thankless role, with moments on screen that felt like throwaways that could have easily ended up on the cutting room floor. Same could go for Lily James as Churchill’s secretary. Only Gary Oldman shines bright in Darkest Hour. To a much lesser extent Ben Mendelsohn did a fine job as King George VI making the role his own in his scenes to the point where we did not long for Colin Firth to repeat his performance from The King’s Speech (2010). Plus, Darkest Hour does make the viewer feel empathy for Neville Chamberlain, often viewed as one of the biggest buffoons of the 20th century for his peace attempts with Hitler. It also makes us long for our political leaders today to be like George Washington and Winston Churchill to appoint a cabinet with their rivals so that our leaders work together with people of opposing viewpoints to run our country and truly represent the people.
Darkest Hour is a nice companion piece to this years Dunkirk. It shows what went on behind the scenes of that valiant rescue. I stated in my review that Dunkirk was a movie Winston Churchill would be proud of. There was a terrific HBO/BBC movie about Winston Churchill and his days leading up to the British fighting the Germans in World War II called The Gathering Storm (2002). It succeeded in developing the relationship between Winston and Clementine much better and is absolutely worth checking out before or after you have seen Darkest Hour.