Review: Darkest Hour

Gary Oldman reigns victorious in Joe Wright's depiction of the early days of the War, says Jaimie Hampton.


With Darkest Hour, director Joe Wright thrillingly illustrates the political side of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk by placing a momentous piece of history into the hands of Gary Oldman. Wright – who depicted the enormity of the Dunkirk evacuation in Atonement (2007) – delivers a remarkable cinematic history lesson that balances the difficulties of Churchill’s first forty days in office with his own personal dilemmas.

10th May 1940, Winton Churchill becomes Prime Minister despite vicious criticism within his own party. Although Hitler’s forces gather across the Channel, Churchill’s immediate enemies take the form of Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), who scheme to undermine Churchill’s parliamentary position by pushing for peace talks. Dillane’s malignant impassivity makes Churchill seem isolated, creating tension as he is forcibly pushed towards to the possibility of surrendering to Hitler.

Darkest Hour could be viewed as a companion piece to Nolan’s Dunkirk. Here we see panicked politicians buried in the Cabinet War Rooms as the countdown to “Operation Dynamo” ticks away in bold block letters. Churchill is reduced to a single newspaper article in Dunkirk, a contrast to the aggressive intelligence that Oldman delivers. Darkest Hour also has similarities with the recent film Churchill, as both imagine the prime minister as having a young female secretary who brings him down to earth. Kristen Scott-Thomas’ performance is impressive as she plays Churchill’s exasperated and affectionate wife Clemmie. However, Anthony McCarten’s script fails to successfully integrate its female protagonists into the male-dominated parliament, and they are given too little to do.

Gary Oldman reigns victorious, as he conveys Churchill’s energy and enthusiasm beneath an impressive amount of prosthetics. Credit to makeup artist Kazuhiro Tsuji is due here, who’s artistry compliments Oldman’s performance and makes it seem utterly believable. Oldman is terrific not because of this physicality, but because he masters Churchill’s essence to a tee. He dashes around Parliament in bombast fashion, capturing the spirit and stamina that allowed Churchill to successfully lead Britain through the Second World War.

Oldman’s performance also explores a more sympathetic side to Churchill, one rarely considered in previous portrayals. A scene where Churchill sits alone after a disappointing phone call, sinking into the depths of depression demonstrates the isolation he experienced during his first weeks as Prime Minister. Similarly, as Churchill is cornered by Halifax’s political manoeuvres, Oldman displays a sense of frailty as the weight of Churchill’s dilemmas press heavily on his shoulders. This performance exhibits Oldman’s flexibility as an actor, indicating that his detailed portrayal of Churchill is deserving of an Academy Award.

a remarkable cinematic history lesson

It is true that Wright’s film is partial to romantic invention. Although scenes involving the King and Churchill mirror their unlikely friendship, at times they are too fanciful. Furthermore, for a film titled Darkest Hour, the balance between humour and peril seems one sided. The light-hearted tone seems essential in part, in order to reflect the nation’s optimism at the beginning of the war, however it does not fully get to grips with the peril that Britain faces.

Despite there being room for a sincerer biopic about Churchill, Gary Oldman presents an astounding performance that makes this film well worth watching. Darkest Hour is an excellent reminder of why Winston Churchill is considered to be the greatest Briton of all time.

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