A man who seemed to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders at one point is explored in “Darkest Hour.”
The movie takes place in 1940 with the German military invading countries and pushing back the forces of Great Britain and France. With new leadership needed, Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) is brought in as a Prime Minister who is ready and willing to defend the island nation.
As Churchill enters office, he faces a massive problem with German forces surrounding the British at Dunkirk. Meanwhile, at home, Churchill has to deal with politicians including Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) and Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) pushing back against the new prime minister’s plan for war and opting to negotiate with Adolf Hitler.
From a story perspective, “Darkest Hour” is rather simple in its approach. The film is more or less a build toward Churchill’s “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech, and it does so in a fairly by-the-books manner. An example of this is making the politics less complex than it should have been.
Chamberlain and Halifax are shown as so opposed to Churchill that there’s no grey, it’s just black and white. In fact, they even portray Chamberlain and Halifax as somewhat conniving since they want to remove Churchill from office. As a result, the political conversations seem to lack nuance.
Additionally, the movie looks too Hollywood at times. There were moments here that were blatantly romanticized.
Despite those complaints, though, “Darkest Hour” has a lot working for it. For example, despite playing things fairly straightforward when it comes to the biographical details around Churchill, the movie still captures one’s attention thanks to its ‘race against the clock’ element.
The entire film takes place during those key days of May, countries are falling to Germany and the threat is real and intense. Even France, a power during World War I, is failing, and Churchill is staring it down and not rolling over. His firm resolve in the face of the threat is entertaining and keeps a viewer fixated on what’s happening.
Coinciding with this aspect is Oldman’s Oscar-caliber performance as Churchill. The guy completely disappears into the role, adapting his mannerisms, speech and tone to what Churchill has been described as. He convincingly shows Churchill’s humor, his doubt and his strength. As a result, the best parts of the film are pinpointed to when Oldman’s Churchill does something historic, making speeches to the House of Commons being a prime example.
It’s one of those performances that you have to see, up there with other historical portrayals, such as Natalie Portman in last year’s “Jackie” or Daniel Day-Lewis in “Lincoln” from 2012.
The supporting cast has some nice pieces, too. Ben Mendelsohn is solid as King George VI and Lily James is quite charming as Churchill’s secretary Elizabeth.
In terms of characters, though, the movie could have used a few that were more layered. Halifax and Chamberlain were really the only politicians featured at length here and both were shown without having much depth, despite their motivations being clear. The film could have benefited from a direction that “Lincoln” took. In that picture, there were prominent characters such as William Seward (David Strathairn) as Lincoln’s advisor and Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) as a member of Congress who gave more intrigue to the film’s political angle.
From a visual standpoint, credit must go to the makeup crew for completely transforming Oldman into Churchill. The look is flawless and makes the performance so convincing. The film’s cinematography is also on point, capturing settings such as the dim House of Commons to great effect.
Darkest Hour” has its issues, but the performance from Goodman is so good and the movie snags an audience with its recreation of those days when the Allies’ victory wasn’t a foregone conclusion. 4.1 out of 5.