As Divisive As It Is Impressive
Darkest Hour is likely to be received as divisively as the prickly demeanour of Winston Churchill when he came into office. This politically charged biographical drama about Churchill’s earliest days as Prime Minister acts as a platform to a breathtaking performance from Gary Oldman. An absolute tour de force, Oldman’s acting shines in an intriguing but largely polarizing film depicting the backroom politics involved in Britain’s role in World War II.
The film opens with an establishing shot of a moody, dim House Of Commons lit by one solitary spotlight. Prime Minister Chamberlain sits glumly looking on as the opposition party launch a blistering attack at his stance regarding Hitler and the imminent threat of Nazi Germany. “We are at war,” spits the opposition, teeth clenched. “He has proven himself incapable during war-time!” and as the hammer blow strikes the heart of parliament, confidence in the commons and the Prime Minister dissolves resulting in the hunt for a new leader during this tumultuous time.
It’s here that the focus shifts and rests squarely on the shoulders of Gary Oldman whose performance as Winston Churchill is Oscar-worthy material. Exquisitely raw and powerful from the off, Oldman’s mix of rage, tempered annoyance and measured responses demand respect and its difficult to take your eyes off him. With such a mesmerizing performance, the camera wisely follows his every move; smoking cigars, drinking whiskey and exasperated annoyance at those around him form the bulk of his character as he shuffles from scene to scene.
For much of the movie, Churchill’s struggles to win over those in the war cabinet, his own party and leaders from around the world typify what a massive uphill battle it was when Churchill first came into office at the start of World War II. His resolute defiance in the face of certain defeat are celebrated in true British patriotism and much like the war, Darkest Hour refuses to end on a whimper. Instead, the film ends with a defiant roar of victory.
Darkest Hour is certain to divide a lot of people. In many ways it feels like a British version of 2004’s Downfall – tunnelling the focus on one character, driving the tension through long speeches and politically charged, emotional confrontations. Where Downfall’s tone is one of exasperated hopelessness, Darkest Hour is steeped in optimism and hope in the face of adversity which certainly helps the overall mood of the film.
With such a powerful performance, Gary Oldman manages to hide a few of the issues inherent with the film, in particular the frailties evident in the supporting cast. Halifax (Stephen Dillane) and Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) do have key roles in the film but barely expand beyond the two-dimensional snobbish politicians they adopt. King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) has a little development and Elizabeth Layton’s (Lily James) role as Churchill’s typist is certainly interesting but again, her role is minor and inconsequential with little to no back story used to flesh out her character. It could be argued that this was done deliberately, keeping the focus squarely on Churchill, but it’s still a little disappointing that the rest of cast fall to the wayside in favour of Churchill’s excellent writing and development.
Those looking for an action packed or dramatic thriller rife with twists and tense confrontations may well leave disappointed. This deliberately paced, methodical character examination of Winston Churchill shines and Gary Oldman is simply incredible as the Prime Minister of Britain during the war. What the film lacks in outright excitement and action, it more than makes up for with a driven acting masterclass from an inspired Oldman. The character driven plot hits hard and solidifies itself as a worthy contender for a Best Oscar nod during 2018’s Oscar campaign.