Darkest Hour, rated PG-13
Darkest Hour is one of the top films of the year, led by an Oscar worthy portrayal of Winston Churchill by Gary Oldman. This is the second film of 2017 based on the “Miracle at Dunkirk” during World War II. Darkest Hour nicely complements Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (see my review). While Dunkirk focused on the action around the Dunkirk rescue, and had minimal dialogue, Darkest Hour focuses primarily on the politics involved with the Dunkirk issue, and particularly the role of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The film is directed by Golden Globe nominee Joe Write (Atonement) and written by two-time Oscar nominee Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything). The musical score is by Oscar winner Dario Marianelli (Atonement), and the incredible cinematography (note the final scene with Churchill powerfully leaving Parliament with paper floating in the air), by four-time Oscar nominee Bruno Delbonnel (Inside Llewyn Davis, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince).
The film takes place in 1940 when Hitler’s German troops have begun an invasion of France. Churchill, played by Oscar nominee Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), is the newly named British Prime Minister, after Neville Chamberlain has lost the confidence of Parliament. We see Churchill as a great orator, making several powerful speeches in this film. Initially he delivers a radio address to the English people portraying that the situation is much more positive that it actually is. Then he hears that there are more than 300,000 British troops trapped on the beach at Dunkirk.
This film is primarily the story of two conflicting political and military approaches to the Dunkirk situation. Former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup, The Crown, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), who is dying of cancer, and the Earl of Halifax (Stephen Dillane, John Adams), believe that Britain should begin peace negotiations with Hitler to save British lives. Churchill on the other hand, wants to move forward with a risky plan to rescue the British soldiers from the beach at Dunkirk. We see Winston Churchill carrying the weight of leadership on his shoulders and also using his influence to its greatest advantage. He is a good leader in that he listens to wise counsel, but also is willing to take the hard stands when necessary.
At his lowest moment Churchill hears from U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt that the United States will not be providing any assistance to Britain when he most needs it. The conflicting plans (negotiate peace vs. rescue) are brought to King George VI, played by Golden Globe nominee Ben Mendelsohn (Bloodline).
We see Churchill conflicted as the reality of the Dunkirk situation sinks in. Earlier in the film we hear him tell his driver that he has never ridden a bus. In a key scene, we see him on the way to Parliament, but in the middle of traffic, he hops out of his limousine and heads toward the underground train. There, the initially shocked riders eventually open up to him and voice their support for his approach.
Oldman is unrecognizable as Churchill – the hair and makeup work done on him is flawless. He drinks a lot and often has a cigar hanging out of his mouth. He delivers a brilliant performance, the best acting performance I’ve seen this year. Oscar nominee Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient) delivers a strong performance as Churchill’s wife Clemmie, and Lily James (Downton Abbey, Cinderella) is very effective as Churchill’s loyal secretary Elizabeth Layton. We see Elizabeth working closely with Churchill, typing his speeches, whether he is in bed, in the bathtub, car, etc. The film contains a small amount of adult language, including a few abuses of God’s name.
Darkest Hour is a well-written, acted and directed film. Gary Oldman delivers a performance that may earn him the Oscar for Best Actor, a performance that has already been honored with a Golden Globe nomination. Bruno Delbonnel should win an Oscar for best cinematography.
For those wanting to learn more about the events portrayed in these two films, I would recommend the book The Miracle of Dunkirk: The True Story of Operation Dynamo by Walter Lord. (see my review).