Director: Joe Wright
Starring: Gary Oldman, Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane
During the early days of World War II, the fate of Western Europe hangs on the newly-appointed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who must decide whether to negotiate with Hitler, or fight on against incredible odds. (Source: IMDb)
The slightly lackluster Churchill (2017) always had a bit of a losing battle on its hands in that it already had to compete with Darkest Hour (2018), despite them being just over 6 months apart. Poised to release in the throes of award season, and with plenty of buzz surrounding Gary Oldman’s transformative performance, there seemed to be no doubt what the “better” Churchill film would be.
There is no doubting that Darkest Hour is a better movie. We’ll get to Oldman’s much-talked about performance soon enough, but the craftmanship of this film is undoubtedly of a much higher standard. Director Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice) is returning to familiar territory once again in directing a period piece, and this film proves to be a great fit for his style. To make a film which is totally devoid of action into a captivating film means the appearance of it has to do a lot of the heavy lifting, and indeed Wright and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel succeed in this.
This was one of the stronger aspects of the film for me, the lighting and framing being particularly noteworthy. There were frequent shots in near-darkness, emphasizing the weight and severity of the situation Churchill faced, with the man himself often being framed by windows, doors, or even light to relay the pressure being placed on this one man to pull off the impossible.
With a biopic, there is always the worry it will place the person in question on an unnecessary pedestal, ignoring their flaws and grossly exaggerating their strengths. Whilst later in the film it veers a little too far into the hero-worship – a particularly unpalatable scene on a tube springs to mind – for the most part, the film is focused on highlighting Churchill’s flaws, and not shying away from the unpopularity of some of his decisions.
Highlighting the tensions between Churchill and former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Pickup), King George VI (Mendelsohn), and Viscount Halifax (Dillane), we see him in a very different light; often antagonistic, difficult to work with, hot-headed and brash. It is commendable that much of the film focuses on the man’s flaws, whilst also still maintaining the good that came out of this.
Of course, the central thing about this film is Gary Oldman’s performance, and it is truly a tour-de-force. In the hands of another actor, this film would’ve faltered, but in the hands of Oldman it is truly extraordinary. Whilst there are aspects of the film that don’t quite match up to the strength of his performance, this doesn’t take away from it, and following his Globes win, it would seem he is almost a dead cert to take home the Oscar, and it would be a deserving win.
Where this film falls is in the pacing and storytelling; the focus on such a short period of time is an interesting one, but it does feel lethargic in places. The entire film is leading up to “the” speech, and when the most thrilling part of a film are the various speeches Churchill makes, it might struggle to hold your attention entirely. It is perhaps a little too long, and feels like it is losing its way just towards the tail-end before picking up again for the finale. It does however make quite a nice companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk; showing the events and decision-making behind the scenes leading up to the events of that film.
I saw this movie and you should too. Whilst the story is not the most thrilling, the quality of the film-making, and of course Oldman’s towering performance make this film worth your time. The supporting cast are of equally high quality, with Kristin Scott Thomas and Ben Mendelsohn being the standouts. In terms of demonstrating that the events behind Dunkirk were just as tense, albeit in very different ways, then Darkest Hour succeeds.