Churchill has cemented his place in our country’s history as the shining example of a leader born to lead a beleaguered and concerned nation through the crucible of war, exemplifying the traditional British spirit of an unwaveringly stiff upper lip, indefatigable determination in the face of impossible odds, and unyielding national spirit. Many an actor has portrayed the man in innumerable cinematic works – in the past year alone, we have had icons of the screen such as Brian Cox, Michael Gambon and John Lithgow portray the immortal Bulldog. But of all these and more, Darkest Hour endeavors to rise above the competition off the back of one of the strongest depictions of the Prime Minister in years.
The span of the film is limited, a drawback for those who were expecting more of Churchill’s history even if the decision was intentional, but that makes Oldman’s thoroughly captivating performance no less spectacular. During the film’s production, much news made the rounds in regards to the level of Oldman’s preparation for the role – extensively studying biographies, conversing with family members, nailing Churchill’s distinctive accent, shaving his head and wearing several pounds of foam, prosthetics and silicon, yet he could hardly look more natural in the part. So often is he depicted as vigorously puffing on a cigar, face framed by light both dim and intense when the situation calls for it, As a Churchill beset by the early difficulties of Britain’s role in the Second World War, facing opposition from within and without, he contends with political jockeying from dissatisfied rebels in Parliament – chief among them Lord Halifax, who is of the opinion that Britain’s position in the war has become increasingly untenable – and grapples with affairs overseas, particularly the invasion of France and the prelude to Operation Dynamo. As the film directly states, this is an examination of the country’s own darkest hour in a time of almost impossible crisis – and it is a dark hour made bright indeed by the overwhelming magnetism of Oldman’s compelling performance.
To say that Oldman may well have produced one of the strongest depictions of Churchill in cinematic history is no overstatement. It is not only his willingness to research that has paid dividends; he brings the entirety of his experience to the role, calling upon his catalog of films and thespian workings to give us a Churchill so artfully crafted that one forgets they are watching an acted production entirely. Oldman flawlessly captures the bombast and grand, sweeping oratory that Churchill is known and lionized for, but so too does he not overstep his boundaries into relentless chest-thumping. The full scope of the PM’s emotions and actions are encapsulated entirely in his performance, from moments of dry wit and quintessentially British humor with his wife and colleagues to the peculiar sort of care he displays for those close to him, particularly Lily James’ at-first nervous yet eventually determined take on Elizabeth Layton. The moments of quiet doubt, of silent rumination and personal admittance, are by no means a weakness. They serve to craft a fuller picture of the man, making him as human as he is mythical, as emotional as he is outspoken, and the end result is a welcomingly multi-faceted portrait that lends a truly historical and genuine air to the proceedings. For every energizing speech and defiant declaration – “You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!”, thunders Churchill to his rebellious fellows – there is an understated counterpoint as the scenes change from arguments or patriotic oration to moments of solitude. All this is underlined and emphasized further by an unobtrusive, effectively stirring score from Dario Marianelli, making the emotional impact of the film as a whole that much more pronounced.
The other members of the cast shine too, though Oldman’s radiance is so brilliant that they find themselves almost inevitably eclipsed – Ben Mendelsohn plays a reserved yet captivating take on King George VI, a role that is both the source of dry humour and inspiration in equal measure and one that was similarly meticulously researched, as Mendelsohn goes to great pains to emulate the monarch’s noted lisp. Lily James and Kristin Scott Thomas both excel as Layton and Clementine Churchill, respectively, displaying convincing pluck and courage under fire of their own all while drawing out the Prime Minister’s softer, more intimate qualities. Stephen Dillane and Ronald Pickup end up being rather overshadowed by comparison, but that hardly dampens the earnest nature of their own performances. It is a true ensemble cast, with years of collective experience behind them, and they play their roles with almost immaculate care and perfection.
Churchill, as a subject, is admittedly rather old hat, and he has been covered so many times before that one could be forgiven for feeling reluctance towards seeing Joe Wright’s take on the subject, the latest in a long line of cinematic odes to the man’s enduring spirit and unyielding perseverance. Oldman’s flair and love for the role, combined with technical finesse, a solid script and a comfortable running time almost entirely bereft of dull moments, make this stand tall above its predecessors. This film covers a harrowing time, a time where tyranny, bloodshed and oppression lay at our doorstep, and for a few perilous months, we never looked closer to defeat. This is, indeed, a tale about our darkest hour – but in its superb depiction of the man who brought Britain back from the brink, those involved, and indeed those who see it, should look back upon it and say, without hesitation, that this was their finest hour.