Darkest Hour Review: A character-driven masterpiece
Gary Oldman carries the weight of the film on his shoulders, putting in an Oscar-worthy performance that will not be forgotten for a long time to come
It is a story that has been recounted time and again, gathering a legend along the way that will be hard to replicate. It was a small matter that the tale was of great historical importance to the world. Darkest Hour focuses not on the life of Winston Churchill, but on the specific period of World War II that he will be remembered for. Reviled for his many unpopular stances in the colonised world, the British Bulldog was widely admired in the West for his defiant response to Hitler’s unbridled aggression. The man is credited as one of the chief architects of the famous victory of the Allied Forces.
Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour shows the kind of stirring effect Churchill’s words had on an entire nation in trouble. After the first few minutes have passed, it is impossible to tell the difference between Gary Oldman and Winston Churchill; one might as well have replaced the other. Such is the method-acting style Oldman brings to the table. The heavily character-driven drama rests on his shoulders, making this performance one of his finest to date. With a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Motion Picture Drama, and several nominations including a pending BAFTA, it is only a matter of time before the actor stakes serious claim to an Academy Award. Wright’s direction and McCarten’s screenplay ensure that every supporting actor in the narrative is given the necessary leeway to further the film’s larger-than-life feel.
Director: Joe Wright
Cast: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane
Darkest Hour thrives on the presentation of its scenes. Each of these – be it wildly witty or truly inspirational or even utterly grave – forms a significant part that adds up to the whole. Winston’s hilarious introduction to the audience is seen through the eyes of his nervous new secretary, Elizabeth Layton. Before she enters, she is briefed about the man’s abrasive persona and quirky manner. Dressed in a bathrobe with his trademark scotch by his bedside, Churchill begins to rattle off a speech he is to give soon. He barks orders at the new recruit, putting her under immense pressure from the outset. Unable to withstand the volley of verbal abuse, she flees the room in tears. Layton is comforted by Winston’s wife, Clementine (portrayed by a supremely impressive Kristin Scott Thomas), who barges into her husband’s room telling him that he must learn to be more kind.
After the British Parliament loses faith in Neville Chamberlain, Churchill is given the unfortunate task of heading a country on the brink of defeat. It is May 1940, and Hitler advances through Europe almost unchallenged. Everybody reluctantly agrees that the unpopular statesman is the ideal person for the job. His “Blood, toil, tears and sweat” speech leaves parliament unimpressed, and his insistence on never surrendering makes him fall out with his cabinet. His fiercest critics are Chamberlain and Halifax, both of whom threaten to resign if Churchill refuses to play ball. Halifax is set on brokering a peace deal that will assure the United Kingdom fair terms in the surrender. After visiting the French Premier with his ostensibly delusional views, Churchill pours all his energy into the evacuation of 300,000 soldiers trapped at Dunkirk.
Despite the heavy subject matter, much humour abounds in Darkest Hour. Two scenes remain etched in my memory. The first is when Clemmie declares that the Churchills are broke, and Winston responds by saying that they ought to economise (he states that he will lead the way in that regard by cutting down his cigar-consumption to four per day). Clementine yells, “You’re insufferable,” in response. The second is the opening exchange between King George VI and Churchill, as the latter calls on the former after becoming Prime Minister.
The character-driven storytelling (that refrains from projecting the raging battle) relies almost entirely on the words spoken, and the effect they have on the larger outcomes. Darkest Hour does stumble from time to time; there’s a totally unnecessary and historically inaccurate sequence involving Winston riding the Underground to get a sense of the public mood. The chants of the common London commuter, answering his query of whether to surrender or not, feel disingenuous. While high levels of jingoism come to the fore as the end nears, the film does succeed in telling the story of a contentious historical figure who was behind the ultimate fall of the Führer. And Churchill’s eternal words of fighting till the last breath are given artistic expression and credence through Wright’s brilliant direction.