Recently there have been quite a few versions of Winston Churchill in popular media. John Lithgow played him in the Netflix show The Crown, Michael Gambon last year, and Brian Cox earlier this year in Churchill. There are a few key moments in Churchill’s career, but this movie focuses on a few key months.
Darkest Hour begins in May 1940 as respected Conservative politician Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane of Game of Thrones fame) turns down the Prime Minister position. The current PM Neville Chamberlain had lost respect from the country due to his poor handling of Hitler, so instead the party is forced to accept a compromise: Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman), who was widely respected by the common man but not quite so by the King (Ben Mendelsohn) or other politicians.
The movie fudges the timeline a bit to introduce us to Churchill through his new personal secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), who overcomes initial difficulties with Churchill’s particularities to provide real inspiration. As the days tick forward, the government argues internally about the war effort.
This movie coincides with the Dunkirk movie earlier this year, although this one never leaves the shores of England. Instead, the spectre of potentially losing 300,000 soldiers hangs over every decision. Churchill does not want to even attempt peace with the Nazis, despite the potential destruction of his country, contrary to people like Halifax, who believed that a peace treaty, no matter how onerous, was the only path to survival.
What’s helpful here is that Halifax is no monster, his desire for peace is about protecting the country. He attempts at every turn to undermine Churchill or sway him from his path, but the movie is clever enough to let Oldman show us Churchill’s internal struggle. He acts with great certainty in public, but at home, with Elizabeth or his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), he is less sure.
Oldman is buried under a highly impressive prosthesis and specially made “Churchill” suit, yet he is recognizably himself. Gary Oldman has long been one of the finest character actors in film, and this is a master class of acting in a movie elevated by his tremendous work. Sometimes the movie is slow, confusing, and ponderous, yet when Churchill is on the screen, it is electric.
A wonderful moment, invented for the film, shows his humanity in a subway car in the Underground as he connects with the “common” men and women of London, and although it is half treacly and half moving, it works, because damn if it doesn’t feel true.
Everything leads to the final moments when Churchill gives his famous “We shall fight on the beaches” speech, a vital and key moment in British and WWII history. If that moment wasn’t perfectly executed, the movie would falter. But it does not, and I can only hope that perhaps this will be the year Oldman finally wins the Oscar he’s deserved for 25 years.
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Darkest Hour has a run time of 2 hours 5 minutes and is rated PG-13 for some thematic material.