Winston Churchill is as famous a British Prime Minister as you can get. Taking control of the country in a time of grave need and facing imminent destruction, he had the unenviable task of inspiring his country into believing the war was not lost. What followed is a story of bravery and heroism on the part of the entire UK, who rallied behind Churchill and his unrivalled skill with language. As a character, Churchill is as alluring as any other. The task, this time, falls to Gary Oldman. To say Oldman gives a great performance in ‘Darkest Hour’ is the understatement of the century.
After being reluctantly placed in charge of the UK, succeeding the increasingly ineffectual Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill was given a war to win, in as literal a sense as you can get. As a man without the support of his party, he is left with only his desire and his commitment to serving his country at all costs. Spanning Churchill’s tumultuous first 9 days in office (yes, 9 days), ‘Darkest Hour’ shows even a man brimming with confidence can be brought to his knees.
Before addressing the obvious in greater detail, ‘Darkest Hour’ is a great film. I’m surprised I was as invested as I was. To be political for just a minute, I am phenomenally disenfranchised with the idea of Great British Values and how great this country is considering the UK is on the verge of irreversible self-destruction. And yet, ‘Darkest Hour’ is a film built on that; built on rallying the country to believe in itself, and I couldn’t help but be swept up in the commotion.
Joe Wright is a visual director with hits and very big misses (‘Atonement’ and ‘Pan’, respectively). I’m happy to report he has another hit with ‘Darkest Hour’. Using flashy camera movements, whether slow zooms or tracking shots or crane shots around the Houses of Parliament, ‘Darkest Hour’ is very enjoyable to watch. One particular shot made me audibly say ‘wow’ in the cinema, where the camera tracks along a bombing run and the destroyed ground before seamlessly transitioning to a dead soldier’s face covered in dirt. It’s the kind of shot that leaves an impression and won’t leave my mind for a while. There are some more creative shots that feel somewhat unnecessary (more than a few scenes of Churchill alone in a room surrounded by a frame of total darkness to convey his isolation within his party were slightly too blunt), but the effect of the film as a whole isn’t lost. Churchill faced war within his party as much as he did with Adolf Hitler, something Wright managed to very successfully portray.
Now, here comes the point that everyone knows is coming, but it needs to be discussed – Gary Oldman is a complete revelation. Someone could make the wild claim that Joe Wright and company literally reanimated Winston Churchill’s corpse and I’d genuinely think about it for a second. It’s a complete transformation visually, physically, and aurally. Admittedly, Churchill is a meaty character to take on and it demands someone going all-in on the performance to deliver it truthfully, and Oldman does that and then some.
Churchill’s famous speeches are treated like action set-pieces no matter where they’re delivered. Two speeches delivered in the Houses of Parliament, one delivered to a small group of politicians, one delivered to his war cabinet, and one on the radio that is bathed in the red glow of betrayal and fear. Every speech is accompanied by a score that only accentuates every speech’s intentions. Beyond his speeches, Oldman delivers every line with the same energy and vigour as a speech, a personal favourite of which is his cry “you cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!”
Gary Oldman’s career is full of tremendous highs, and for my money, his Churchill may be the highest of the lot. It’s the performance of a lifetime from a true great, and he is deserving of every award he has already received and is sure to receive over the coming weeks.
‘Darkest Hour’ is a brilliant piece of rousing British cinema. For best results, watch it as a double bill with 2017’s ‘Dunkirk.’ ‘Darkest Hour’ works on so many levels from cinematography to screenplay to its performances (Kristin Scott Thomas is terrific as Churchill’s wife, Clementine), but a film like this lives and dies by its lead. Gary Oldman carries the film on his shoulders and marches it victoriously to its conclusion.
Rhys’ Rating: 8.5/10
Directed by: Joe Wright
Starring: Gary Oldman, Lily James, Ben Mendelsohn, Kristin Scott Thomas, Stephen Dillane