‘Darkest Hour’ Review: Churchill Gets off Lightly in this Thrilling War-time Biopic

Joe Wright’s Winston Churchill biopic details his first few weeks in office after the resignation of Neville Chamberlain, one year into the Second World War. As the war continues to escalate, the new Prime Minister must resolve the growing crisis at Dunkirk, the imminence of an invasion by Hitler’s Germany, as well as political pressures to negotiate peace. The film reminds me of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, in particular the deference payed to its subject and the decision to condense the story of an iconic leader to a key moment in his life. In terms of tone it is very similar to The King’s Speech, which, of course, covered the same time period from a different perspective.

The film is clearly a vehicle for Gary Oldman’s performance and it is one of his most striking. There’s always the risk of verging into caricature and broad strokes when performing as such an eccentric character. However, Oldman is able to bring a vulnerability to the role that makes Churchill a far more sympathetic figure. Oldman’s tremendous charisma and eye for detail in the playing of this character make him captivating to watch, even if he does sometimes veer into melodrama. Very much like Daniel Day Lewis in Lincoln, I felt his absence in every scene in which he did not appear.

The performance definitely outshone the prosthetics applied to Oldman which occasionally invoked Peter Serafinowicz’s fat character, Brian Butterfield. The other elements of the production were flawless, with period costumes and the recreation of Churchill’s war offices looking especially wonderful.It’s interesting how the film teases Churchill in the early stages. He first suggested by a reserved seat and a breakfast being prepared, before his face is finally illuminated in the darkness like Harry Lime (as played by Orson Welles in the classic film The Third Man). The iconography of Churchill, his hat, his cigars, his silhouette, are made sacred relics. Wright presents Churchill as a heroic though fragile leader who received the office he so deserved tragically late in life and with many hindrances from others.

Churchill is an interesting character in British popular consciousness. Due to his frequent mind changes and seemingly opposing beliefs he is often claimed by both the left and right, and both find him problematic for much the same reasons. The film does little to deal with this aspect of his legacy. A scene of him tenderly bonding with a Black British man feels at odds with quotes of his not included in the movie, such as, “I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place”. He certainly was a provocative orator.

Also absent is any mention of Churchill’s ongoing battle with depression and alcoholism. Certainly the Churchill of the film drinks a tremendous amount and often seems to slur his words, but worryingly this is never portrayed as impeding his ability to do his job. His alcoholism is just a charming affectation. At one stage he underestimates the significance of a tank invasion into France, demonstrating his naivety in modern military tactics. This is important, and more care could have been taken to show how his outdated world views impacted on his decisions. I can’t help but feel that the film wanted to present the most flawed vision of Churchill they could without stepping on any toes. Perhaps in the current climate we could have done with a more complex vision of the complicated man.

On its own terms, and without the knowledge of the elements omitted, Darkest Hour is a very compelling character study. The ticking clock of Dunkirk adds urgency to the trials and tribulations of Churchill’s life. Aspects such as his strained relationship with his wife, played very well by Kristen Scott Thomas, are a little too understated. Then there’s the convenient audience surrogate in the form of Lily James’ character Elizabeth Layton, Churchill’s new personal secretary. Unfortunately, and in spite of a very likeable performance from James, she is given few opportunities to develop beyond her usefulness to the plot as a stand-in for the common man. I’d like to also highlight Ben Mendelsohn who gives a marvelous performance as King George VI, the role that previously won Colin Firth an Oscar. Mendelson brings tremendous authority to the role and great understatement which effectively communicates his royal stature.

Naturally for a film designed for all audiences there are some comic relief scenes, some of which felt a little contrived and unnatural. For example, the scene in which Churchill eccentrically abandons his cab to roam around the London Underground, encountering members of the great unwashed. It’s clearly an important moment in the character’s arc as he is able to discover the resolve to continue fighting, but there’s something very artificial about the sequence. Perhaps it’s the unrealistically obliging district line train that sits in the station for around ten minutes to allow the scene to play out, perhaps it’s the very broadly played members of the public who perfectly represent a cross section of society and have a habit of speaking in unison, or maybe it’s just the awkwardness of inserting Churchill’s sound clip witticisms into actual dialogue. The tone recalled a children’s film.

Darkest Hour is a very entertaining and occasionally thrilling biopic. The central dilemma of “To fight or not to fight,” is deeply engaging and the film actually manages to make appeasing the Nazis seem like a viable option when faced with the alternative of total annihilation. Of course comparisons to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk are inevitable as it was released very recently and covers the same time period. Both films end with Churchill’s famous address to the House of Commons, well, sort of. Nolan’s film concluded with a smouldering spitfire on a French beach. Churchill’s address was then read by a battle weary soldier returning to the home he so longed for, while Hans Zimmer’s reworking of Elgar’s Variation 15 soared and caused all of our jaws to wobble. I can’t help but feel that Nolan’s far less conventional approach got to the heart of the moment much more effectively.

3.5 / 5

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