Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) is stepping down as Prime Minister of England during the height of World War II. The council of nobles all want his successor to be Viscount Hallifax (Stephen Dillane), but he openly refuses the offer, stating simply “my time has not yet come”. Chamberlain suggests the one man their political opposition would accept, though nobody – not even King George IV (Ben Mendelsohn) – is happy about the choice: Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman).
Churchill is a fearsome man who’s had a never-ending stream of assistants who simply can’t keep up with him or deal with his brutish disposition. His latest victim is Elizabeth Layton (Lily James). She’s going to leave after he yells at her, but comes back when news arrives that he’s now the new Prime Minister. She sticks with Churchill through the following weeks as his secretary, transcribing his words for letters and speeches.
Churchill is immediately thrust into proverbial political battlefield as England is on the losing side of the war with Nazi German beating them back on all fronts and threatening invasion. Churchill’s instinct is to keep fighting to the last man, but his fellow politicians are against such a mindset and insist on having peace talks and negotiated surrender with Hitler and Mussolini, leaving Churchill the dilemma of deciding what is best for England.
Darkest Hour can best be summed up in four words: Gary Oldman is amazing! It’s no wonder he’s already received 22 awards for this role, including the Golden Globe; it’s a good bet that he’ll receive Oscar attention as well. He wasn’t just Gary Oldman made to look like Winston Churchill… for two hours and four minutes, he was Winston Churchill. I’d liken his transformation and dedication to the role to that of Heath Ledger’s Joker… both were complete with few remnants of the actor left behind.
The rest of the cast did their jobs well in elevating Gary Oldman to such great heights, although none of them were very memorable. That’s probably a good thing because when someone gives such a stellar performance as Oldman does here perhaps it’s best to simply get out of their way and let them shine like the star they are.
Films like Darkest Hour aren’t usually my first choice for a good time at the movies. I’m not one to care much about politics, other than hoping Trump doesn’t get us all killed by tweeting something foolish. If I’m being honest, history does little for me unless it’s loaded chock-full of ‘splosions! It takes something truly special for a movie based almost entirely around Parliamentary infighting at the dawn of WW2 to hold my interest.
That said, Darkest Hour managed to hold my interest despite being a topic I wasn’t interested in. I give most of that credit to Gary Oldman, but some should also go to director Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement) who has more than redeemed himself here… redemption much needed after the horrendous bomb Pan.
Also coming together to make a finely-tuned film were writer Anthony McCarten (who wrote Oscar-nominated The Theory of Everything), cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (who’s distinctive eye for creating shapes on the screen rang through strong here), and composer Dario Marianelli who creates perfect tones in every scene (both cinematically and musically).
I can’t say Darkest Hours was as fun as some of the other likely Oscar contenders, but it’s not meant to be. After all, here’s a movie about British politics during the height of World War II; there’s little inherently fun about that. It’s not Lady Bird or I, Tonya or even The Greatest Showman, but as a showcase for Gary Oldman’s masterful performance as Churchill and what can be accomplished when everyone works together (much like the theme of the film itself), it’s tough to beat.