Historical dramas are nothing unique, nor particularly are World War II movies. But when you combine one of Gary Oldman’s best performances ever and the always-interesting filmmaker Joe Wright with these two tried and true genres, you get something positively electric. That’s Darkest Hour, which chronicles the early days of Winston Churchill’s (Gary Oldman) reign as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, which involved deciding how to approach the encroaching Nazi threat. Oldman is completely unrecognizable and wildly charming as Churchill in a performance people will be talking about for years, and Wright elevates what could have been a stale story to thrilling heights.
Darkest Hour begins in May 1940, a fraught period in Britain’s life in which German forces were ever-encroaching on France, and British parliament decided Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s approach to the war was not working. The decision is made to have Chamberlain resign, and after agreeable choice Lord Halifax (played by Game of Thrones alum Stephen Dillane) turns down the appointment, everyone begrudgingly selects the bombastic, unpredictable Winston Churchill to take over.
The film wastes no time, opening immediately with Chamberlain’s ouster and then following Churchill as he tries to find a winning strategy, all the while the British forces are being pushed further and further to the coast as city after city falls. When he assumes the post, most of the members of his war cabinet urge Churchill to negotiate a peace treaty so the Nazis—who by now will clearly make it to the U.K.—will look favorably on them. But Churchill, who warned of Hitler years earlier, works to convince everyone to fight as he also navigates an exit strategy for 300,000 British troops at Dunkirk.
Indeed, Darkest Hour makes for a terrific companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Watch Nolan’s film first to get the experiential feel of what it was like to retreat, and then watch Darkest Hour to see how Operation Dynamo was born and executed, and all the infighting that took place along the way. Wright’s film feels very similar to Lincoln in that it’s a procedural story of a great political leader who had to convince people on both sides of the aisle to enact his plan—it’s a “how to” for what makes great leadership. Darkest Hour, being a distinctly British film, doesn’t have the same sentimentality that permeated Lincoln, but it does have a transformative (and, yes, likely Oscar-winning) lead performance.
Oldman has made a career out of being a chameleon, but it’s a truly stunning experience watching him work in Darkest Hour. It’s a little silly to say, but you really do feel like you’re watching Winston Churchill onscreen. It’s a brilliant and specific performance as Oldman nails everything from Churchill’s mannerisms to his distinct speech pattern. And of course there’s the drinking and cigar smoking, which are as essential to Churchill as his hat or coat—they’re necessities, you see.
The screenplay by Anthony McCarten, who also wrote The Theory of Everything, wisely takes the “specific” approach to the biopic, opting to encapsulate the whole of a person over the course of a single event rather than trying to cover their life from cradle to grave. In that way, the film works, and thanks to a major leg up from Oldman’s performance, we do get a tremendous sense of who Churchill was as a person—the first time we meet him isn’t in parliament, but in his bed, wearing a robe, eating a greasy breakfast.
By zeroing in on Operation Dynamo and, more largely, Churchill’s efforts to sway people to fight back against the Nazis rather than negotiate peace, we see how he works, what he thinks, and even the effect his work has on his family. Kristin Scott Thomas only has a few scenes as Churchill’s wife Clementine, but she makes the most of them and the script does well by her. This isn’t a two-hander like Theory of Everything, so Clementine’s scenes support the story’s protagonist while also not relegating her to a one-dimensional plot-mover—a delicate balancing act to be sure. And then there’s Ben Mendelsohn, who delivers a restrained and nuanced turn as King George VI. It’s almost refreshing to see Mendelsohn playing a character so “normal,” but it’s further proof that his talent is more versatile than “oddly charming slimeball.”
The secret weapon of this whole movie, however, is Joe Wright. Oldman is astounding to be sure, but in another director’s hands this script could have turned into a stale, boring series of scenes where people talk in rooms and make speeches. That’s actually what the majority of the film entails, but Wright—always looking for the unique spin—captures it all with vitality and vigor, in the spirit of Churchill himself. He works for the first time here with cinematographer Bruno Delbonel, and together they offer a gorgeous and motivated visual approach to the story. Every shot composition, angle, and movement has a reason—they’re not doing cool camera tricks simply because they look cool, they’re doing them because they evoke the sprit of the scene at hand.