“DARKEST HOUR” — 3 stars — Gary Oldman, Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn, Stephen Dillane; PG-13 (thematic material); in general release
Fans of Winston Churchill should be feeling spoiled this year. In addition to the usual yearly run of World War II-themed films such as “Their Finest” and Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” 2017 has offered a pair of Churchill biopics.
The first — Jonathan Teplitzky’s “Churchill” — was centered around the British prime minister’s opposition to the Allied D-Day invasion. Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour” goes back a few years previous, to the events that preceded the London Blitz.
We join the film in May of 1940, as Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) is about to be run out of the Prime Minister's Office by the British Parliament. Churchill (Gary Oldman) is the odds-on favorite to take his place, having already accumulated years of political reputation, but the appointment isn’t without controversy. The opposition is heated, and even King George (Ben Mendelsohn) is hesitant to put Churchill in the prime minister’s chair.
Part of the problem — a big part of the problem — is that the Allies are losing the war. Hitler has been making substantial progress, sweeping through Europe, and as Churchill settles in, his primary task is to address an effort that is looking less and less hopeful.
The Churchill we see is introduced as a bit of a doddering character, almost a little buffoonish, but as the prime minister works his way through the issues, he slowly takes on a reassuring candor.
As viewers navigate the film's narrative of political intrigue — which actually works as a “behind the scenes” to Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” which chronologically is happening around the same time — Churchill is faced with a daunting decision. He can yield to internal pressure to negotiate a peace agreement with Hitler, essentially ceding the continent to the Nazis and potentially becoming the Fuhrer’s puppet across the channel. Or he can stand against Hitler, risking the British army, its people and his own position, with little hope that the German army can be repelled.
“Darkest Hour” takes a while to get going, but once the pieces are in place and Churchill gets down to business, Wright’s film picks up a great deal of momentum. Throughout the film’s 125-minute running time, Wright frequently makes use of intense and dramatic lighting to intensify the story — which helps considering so much of the action is happening offscreen.
Oldman’s performance as Churchill is one of many unique turns he’s had throughout a distinguished career. Under heavy prosthetics, he’s almost unrecognizable as the prime minister, and truly throws himself into the role. "Darkest Hour" will be remembered for Oldman's immersive performance more than anything else.
The cast is also bolstered by Kristin Scott Thomas, who plays Churchill’s wife Clementine, and Lily James, who performs a supporting role as Elizabeth Layton, the latest of many secretaries who have been tormented by Churchill’s taskmaster behavior.
Taken alongside “Churchill” and “Dunkirk” and “Their Finest,” “Darkest Hour” is a compelling addition to a run of 2017 films that have sought to explore lesser-known aspects of World War II. Only a historian could explain whether Wright’s effort is fully accurate, but at the very least, “Darkest Hour” serves as a unique portrait of a leader, and a testament to the bravery of a British people who were at their best when things were worst.
“Darkest Hour” is rated PG-13 for some thematic material; running time: 125 minutes.