Winston Spencer Churchill was a pivotal character in 20th Century Western history. He’s been the subject of many volumes of biography along with movies and TV series, and rightly so since he was involved in much of what happened in the first half of the past century. Throughout that time, though, he was also a controversial personality who often made mistakes, failed at endeavors, and was seen as a self-promoter. He flipped party affiliation twice, and by 1929 he was pushed out of the party leadership. Churchill spent a decade in what has come to be known as “The Wilderness Years.” In retrospect, those years out of power were vital. He wasn’t tainted by the appeasement policies towards Hitler pursued by England during the 1930s, and many military officers and civil servants fed him information on how woefully unprepared for war the British were at that point. His sharp questions in the House of Commons helped force the government to start those preparations. After war broke out in September 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was forced to give Churchill a place in the cabinet as the First Lord of the Admiralty, a position Churchill held in WWI. But Winston had to wait until May 10th of 1940 to take over as Prime Minister, within hours of the Blitzkrieg of Western Europe by the Germans beginning. Joe Wright’s portrait of Winston’s first weeks as PM, from his ascension to Prime Minister to his “We Shall Fight” speech following Dunkirk, shows it truly was the Darkest Hour of the war.
Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) had wanted Lord Halifax (Stephan Dillane) to replace him after he was forced to resign, but Halifax refuses. Instead Chamberlain recommends to King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) that Churchill be asked to form a government. Neither is happy about it. Chamberlain doesn’t trust Churchill, and George hasn’t forgiven Churchill’s support of his brother, Edward VIII, during the Wallis Simpson affair. But as a constitutional monarch, he has little choice but to summon Churchill.
At the time Churchill (Gary Oldman) is at Chartwell, his home outside of London. A new secretary, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) is brought in to help Churchill, but his harsh and demanding demeanor make her ready to walk out that day. Winston’s wife, Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), takes him to task over his boorish behavior. Layton is in the driveway, ready to leave, when a motorcycle messenger arrives from Buckingham Palace. Instead she turns around and delivers the note summoning Churchill to an audience with George – and she remains with Churchill as he takes on the responsibility of Prime Minister.
The film is anchored by a tour de force performance by Gary Oldman as Churchill. Oldman looks nothing like Winston, and had to go through a couple of hours in make-up where prosthetics were applied. However, the actor submerges himself in the role, capturing his voice and mannerisms perfectly. After his recent win at the Golden Globes, Oldman is easily the front runner for best actor honors throughout this award season.
Oldman is ably supported by the rest of the cast, especially by James, Scott Thomas, and Mendelsohn. James’ character functions to give the audience an entry into Churchill’s world and the Cabinet War Rooms, and James manages to do that while still presenting a realistic characterization. (Layton, whose married name was Nel, was a real person who served as one of Churchill’s secretaries; she was the last surviving one, passing away at age 90 in 2007.) Scott Thomas embodies the refined steel of Clementine, the one person who could exercise some control over Winston. Special kudos to Mendelsohn’s version of George VI, since he goes for a more subtle performance than Colin Firth’s Oscar-winning take. The speech impediment is there if you listen, but what comes through is George’s decency and sense of duty, especially in a scene late in the movie between Mendelsohn and Oldman.
Screenwriter Anthony McCarten focuses the story so that even if you’re unaware of the history of that chapter in Churchill’s life, you can still understand what’s happening. While they’re completely different in tone, Darkest Hour adds context to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Wright overall does a good job bringing the script to life, though he leans a bit too much on bomb-site visuals that are more showy than illuminative. But that’s a small quibble.
In the end Darkest Hour hangs on Oldman’s portrayal, and he delivers a truly riveting performance that rings true down to the smallest gesture. He definitely deserves Oscar gold for this role.