Directed by Joe Wright
Starring Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Ben Mendelsohn
Far from the trenches of Nazi-occupied Bordeaux, Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) lived under constant threat of attack from a source just as sinister – his own party. Handed the Prime Ministership by virtue of the fact that he was the only candidate the Opposition would support, a shoe-horned Churchill fought daily to keep the wolves of his party at bay, and to win the respect of his constituency, not to mention the war.
Which was not going well for Britain. Losing troops daily by the thousands, and completely surrounded off the shores of Dunkirk, Mother England faced the real proposition of complete annihalation followed by indefinite occupation. Churchill’s predecessor, Neville Chamberlain, and ambitious party favourite Lord Halifax, devised a plot to oust Churchill via his stance on peace talks with Hitler, theoretically brokered by Mussolini.
This small but historically pivotal period of time is imagined with grace and restraint from director Joe Wright (Atonement, The Soloist). More historical drama than action flick, Wright finds enough suspense and substance within the key moments of 1940 that not once are you anything but riveted to the narrative. This ’11th hour’ tone is maintained throughout thanks to some crafty lighting, particularly in the majestically-lit House of Commons scenes. The dank, dusky tones throughout the film provide further weight to the theme indicated in the title – London seems to be perennially overcast throughout the film.
The gloom of near-doom is interrupted only by a resplendent Kristin Scott Thomas, as Churchill’s supportive but acerbic wife Clementine. Her presence is a calming relief for Churchill, and us. She literally and figuratively shines in Darkest Hour, in another triumph for cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Big Eyes, Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children). Placed against the grainy dark of a London evening, Thomas (radiant in white) is uncoincidentally positioned as the quiet light in the dark, whose soothing and apt advice is shown to be grounding for Churchill, and calming for us. Ben Mendelsohn also chips in as King George VI, the same stuttering monarch imagined by Colin Firth in The King’s Speech. As always, he is brilliant and continues here his spate of home run performances. Lily James also continues to impress as Churchill’s recently-hired and overworked secretary, and enjoys the most fleshed-out storyline of all the supporting characters.
But Darkest Hour clearly belongs to Oldman, who chews through every scene with the fervor of a Churchill cigar. It is a most riveting, detailed performance from surely one of the greatest actors to never win an Oscar (this should change). The suspense generated in the film finds its genesis in the nuances of Oldman’s Churchill. A quivering lip here, a fidget there, the way he lights/ holds his cigar – they are tiny idiosyncrasies but oh so crucial to our investment in the character – and by extension the film. It must surely sit alongside Hoffman’s Capote and Streep’s Thatcher as the most accurate characterisations of the last 30 years. It is a stunning, disciplined portrayal of a man who defined his times before they ever had the chance to define him.