In Darkest Hour the year is 1940 and we open on the House of Commons, the UK’s lower chamber. War has swept western Europe again for the second time in as many generations. Neville Chamberlain is being rallied by the leader of the opposition for his failed policy of appeasement – how can he possibly lead Britain in war with Germany when his policy was to give Hitler whatever he wanted in the vain hope he would stop there? The rallying ends with the Leader of the Opposition, and future Prime Minister, Clement Atlee, calling for a Grand Coalition between all major political parties in the national interest. But there’s only one man from the Conservative Party they’d accept as Prime Minister, and so the King sends for Mr Churchill.
While the Second World War raged between 1939 and 1945, Darkest Hour focuses on one of the most futile and hopeless times for Britain and her allies. It takes place over days rather than months or years and examines, in great detail, the man behind Britain’s comeback, the risks he took to stage said comeback and perceptions of him at home and abroad in those early days. It’s superbly well written and while it stretches the truth in places, it mirrors historical accounts of those days relatively closely.
Before going on to Oldman and the movie at large I want to address the elephant in the room. It’s hard not to see the appeal of this movie through the lens of the current situation in the U.K. With the uncertainty around the U.K. leaving the EU and Britain more divided than it has been for generations it’s almost comforting to watch a movie in which the country must pull together in one direction (however dark the reason might be). Suffice it to say, the movie encourages viewers to challenge their own views about what’s important and leaves you hoping that we really might have more in common than that which divides us.
Now that’s out of the way, in to the acting. Oldman is at his absolute finest throughout. To say that the Academy Award for Best Actor should be his to lose is to underplay the likelihood that it’ll be him. His portrayal of Churchill is one of the most impactful performances I’ve ever seen in my life. The trademark Churchillian temper flares from him in such a way that it’s hard to believe it’s just an act. More impressive still is Oldman’s ability to convey Churchill’s vulnerability and despair, often through nothing more than stillness. In the way that only the greatest of actors can, he elevates all those around him with his confidence and polish. The supporting cast (and they are all supporting cast members – no one can steal centre-stage from Oldman) all deliver stellar performances in their own right. But Oldman gives a masterful execution of a role that has been done many, many times before by many, many different actors. He can sleep easy knowing that, for now, his Churchill is the one people will be talking about ten years from now.
A feeling of hopelessness permeates the movie throughout. This is truly is Britain’s ‘Darkest Hour’ but instead of being hamfistedly told that by anyone, the audience is shown the country’s weakness through the blank faces of children on the street and desperate attempts by elected Members of Parliament to negotiate peace. Long, slow, eerie tracking shots are used to show full streets and the people going about their business. Subtle changes take place throughout, but they’re so very subtle it’s hard to place the changes exactly. After all, the movies runs over the course of a couple of weeks. These shots are terribly impressive ways of showing that everything and nothing is changing day by day.
The screenplay achieves new levels of tension with relatively minor moments and gestures elevated by the sheer impact that they will have. In one of the earliest scenes, Churchill addresses Parliament as Prime Minister for the very first time. His own party will only support him if he has the support of Chamberlain, who the party feels has been treated unfairly. Chamberlain will show his support to the party through using his white handkerchief in certain way. The focus placed upon that one moment, while MPs are braying left, right and centre. It feels as though Chamberlain is wielding a hammer rather than a handkerchief.
Perhaps most impressively though, through a combination of clever direction and Gary Oldman’s inherent skill, we see Churchill as a man. Not the mythical war leader most will know him as now. A man with a family who loves him and who he loves. A man who makes mistakes as often as he avoids them. And a man whose harsh temper masks an empathy for the struggle of his people seemingly unmatched by any leader since. It’s both heart-wrenching and heartwarming to watch – and it’s what makes this an instant classic worthy of any collection of Hollywood greats.