I had the sort of quintessential British upbringing that conditioned a lump of pride to rise in my throat at even the slightest utterance of the words ‘never surrender’; Darkest Hour focuses on the short but pivotal point in British History that led up to Churchill’s infamous declaration of those words. At the early stages of the Second World War, amid counteraction from parts of his own party, newly appointed Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) must decide whether to negotiate peace or fight on for the freedom of Western Europe.
Much like the recent film Churchill (2017), I fear Darkest Hour is elevated by the richness of the history it portrays rather than anything it does to elevate our appreciation of that history. The plot hinges on three of Churchill’s pivotal speeches which overshadow the rest of Anothny McCarten’s (razor-sharp but slow burning) screenplay. Apart from those speeches, I found there to be very little light or shade – a lot of the film is visually and verbally similar to itself and it was only towards film’s climax that I found myself fully engaged.
There’s no denying that Gary Oldman’s Churchill is one for the ages. His physical transformation is nothing short of miraculous; (aside from some slight drops of the accent) it’s virtually impossible to tell that it’s Oldman under the prosthetics (which looked super soft and gave me a weird urge to want to squish his face). More remarkable, though, is the depth of character Oldman manages to convey beyond all the stuff attached to his skin. It’s a performance full of contradictions: brute grump and forbearing kindness, vulnerability and strength, uncertainty and decisiveness. Plus, he freaking nails that final speech.
Beyond Oldman’s performance there’s a lot of extraneous noise. Some unnaturally artsy shots (slow-mo pans through the streets of London and a scene with a lift that seemingly takes Churchill from the War Rooms to No. 10) seem out of place. A plethora of minor characters feel simultaneously unnecessary yet underutilised; Lily James’ character (Elizabeth Layton, Churchill’s secretary) is particularly underdeveloped and I’d like to have seen more of Kristin Scott Thomas’ Clemmie Churchill (she was a delight).
Darkest Hour hits its stride in its final chapter. A couple of poignant scenes (where Churchill and King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) unite forces and Winston consults the Underground riding public) inject some much needed emotional connection to proceedings. They set things up nicely for the ‘We Shall Fight on the Beaches’ speech to really hit home, and it does, it’s marvellous. Via some sort of supernatural synergy, Oldman fully embodies Churchill and any misgivings you have about Darkest Hour are instantly forgiven.
Darkest Hour is a valiant ode to one of Britain’s most cherished historical figures. Although it’s by no means perfect, the power of Churchill’s words and his strength as a decisive leader ultimately shine through. Without question, Darkest Hour is worth seeing for Gary Oldman’s career-defining performance.
Overall, I give Darkest Hour a rating of 3.5/5.