Best Actor (Gary Oldman)

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

FOCUS FEATURES (2018)

 

Director: Joe Wright

 

Starring: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ronald Pickup, Ben Mendelsohn

“Will you stop interrupting me while I am interrupting you!”

 

The second movie within a year to focus on the legendary Winston Churchill (following 2017’s Churchill) and the third to reference the Dunkirk evacuation (the other being…Dunkirk), Darkest Hour zones in on the turbulent initial weeks of Churchill’s reign as Prime Minister with Hitler’s Nazi forces rampaging through Europe, collecting countries as they go. With political espionage rampant in his own party, Churchill had to win over his peers, king and public as well as planning the war efforts – efforts that would impact Britain and the world.

May 1940. Nazi forces are slowly crushing Belgium, the Netherlands and France en route to Britain. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Pickup) has been ousted from his position and despite calls for Lord Halifax (Dillane) to step in to the role, his own reluctance prevents this. This leaves just one man Chamberlain can turn to that will carry the support of the opposition – Winston Churchill (Oldman). Brash, unconventional and prone to a whiskey for breakfast, Churchill carried no support from Chamberlain himself, or indeed, King George VI (Mendelsohn).

 

Churchill’s stoic wife, Clemmie (Thomas), however, fully supports her husband – and is there to remind him to be nicer to people, especially his new secretary Elizabeth Layton (James). His first Parliamentary address, calling for ‘blood, toil, tears, and sweat’ in the effort against Germany, is met with disdain from a crowd of MP’s that believe it’s time to begin peace negotiations with Hitler and Germany. With his public broadcasts garnering criticism for misplaced optimism, the walls are closing in on the beleaguered new leader – a misled (yet unknowing) public, little support in Parliament (and the memory of his failed campaign in Gallipoli during World War I) and a King that is reluctant to work with him. But he will not be swayed – ordering the Dunkirk evacuation, Churchill powers on with his belief that the war can be won – he will never surrender.

 

Darkest Hour is classed a war movie for the sheer fact that its events occur during World War II, and that's pretty much where the allusions to a typical war movie end. Battles are very briefly shown and the Dunkirk evacuation barely alluded to, this is a movie mainly focusing on the political struggles of Churchill, and indeed the country, and the strength of words, passion and belief. The great rousing speeches have all been chiselled into legend and the world is aware of the giant figure Churchill cast across the political scene and British history, but this movie exists to show the uphill task the man faced simply to remain in power and relevance, let alone have a crack at the Nazi’s. It’s an extremely good (and vital) insight into the real man behind the cigars. The man racked with self-doubt, but also stubborn belief in his ways, the man seemingly reliant on a three-course meal comprising alcohol and more alcohol and the man who had to fight for the respect he finally earned.

 

It’s only right to mention Gary Oldman’s wonderful performance first. Unrecognisable under the excellent makeup and prosthetics, this is no mere impersonation or parody, Oldman captures the small details and quirks that made up Churchill’s character expertly – the speech, the stammer, the mumbling, the stance, the cigar-chomping and the frowned eyes. Not just impressive in Churchill’s louder moments, Oldman portrays the lower points of these events with aplomb. It’s a truly magnetic performance and is now the essential performance of Churchill. Impressive in his supporting role, Ben Mendelsohn bears a striking resemblance to King George VI and adds more to the character than previous iterations (including The King’s Speech). Lily James and Kristin Scott Thomas are relegated to minor roles but deliver the goods when they’re needed.

 

World War II Britain is captured with a reverence and grimness all at once by DoP Bruno Delbonnel. The streets of London have a moody sheen to them, as does Parliament – even the King’s quarters have a quiet despair to them for all their extravagance. Churchill is partially bathed in shadows for a lot of the movie also, subtly highlighting the warring emotions inside of him. The dual imagery of Churchill creating his speeches and Layton’s typewriter working overtime as the words pepper the screen is a well-executed technique encapsulating the sheer frantic nature of events. Dario Marianelli’s score is intense and brooding in equal parts and compliments the scenes excellently.

 

The story itself follows fairly well-trodden ground, though focusing on the political thriller aspects lends a distinct approach to proceedings. The addition of the fictional (inspirational, but strange) underground journey Churchill undertakes allows director Joe Wright to throw in some good old-fashioned British stereotypes into the movie – because there has to be one “cor blimey guv’nor” character somewhere. The ‘best of’ reel is also on show– the famous Churchill ‘V’ for victory and the goosebump-inducing “we shall never surrender” speech are rolled out in all their glory – and the movie is all the better for it. The pacing is fairly swift and there aren’t many lulls in the runtime.

 

The bulldog spirit is on full show in Darkest Hour, every word or speech lionized and the unbreakable spirit celebrated, even in the face of such massive odds. The unleashed performance of the already-great Gary Oldman is the movies strongest point, but there’s plenty more to enjoy here. The atmosphere is fraught with tension, the performances uniformly excellent and though we know the outcome, the journey is still fantastic to behold when it’s presented like Darkest Hour.

January 8th 2018

© 2016 Matt Hudson / What I Watched Tonight / Essex

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