Darkest Hour – a riveting and monumental piece of history

Gary Oldman is sensational as Winston Churchill in Joe Wright’s riveting historical drama DARKEST HOUR.

History is always riveting but it’s sometimes not presented that way. Director Joe Wright seems to knows a thing or two about presenting history though, having memorably recreated the 1930s and Second World War in his 2007 movie Atonement. But it’s from the very opening, terrifying images of his latest DARKEST HOUR, where we witness black and white newsreel footage of row upon row of Nazi soldiers followed by the same of heavy artillery, that I felt Wright’s method of story-telling was absolutely spot-on for this monumental piece of history. In other reviews, the film has been described as thriller and right from the get-go, I saw what they meant because not a minute is wasted in setting up that we’re in perilous times and it’ll take a miracle to save us.

It’s May 1940 and Britain is under threat of imminent invasion from Hitler’s army. They’ve pushed our forces to the edge of France and trapped them on the beach at Dunkirk. One million Nazi soldiers are poised to annihilate anything in their path and the British government is in disarray with no confidence in their Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. He must step down for a coalition government to be formed to negotiate terms with Hitler and protect the country from all-out war.

Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour

Gary Oldman is a towering Winston Churchill

After the initial choice of Lord Halifax had refused, there was only one other man who’d be accepted by both sides – Winston Churchill. Discovering him as his new secretary Elizabeth Layton (a perky Lily James) does, illuminated briefly in the dark of his bedroom by a match as he lights one of his cigars, it’s an auspicious introduction. And when we finally see Churchill, it takes you some time to believe that he’s being played by Gary Oldman. Such is the level of detail and recreation of the great man, that this consummate actor deserves all the awards going for his performance here.

His embodiment of Churchill matches the massive scope of the story being told – not just from his bearing but the trademark voice and the great man’s sly humour are all evident. Oldman though has been profuse in his praise of Kazuhiro Tsuji, the illustrious make-up artist and creator of such marvels as the transformations of Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Looper and Angelina Jolie in Salt, and that he couldn’t have taken on the role without Tsuji’s expertise in making Churchill come to life.

Oldman’s portrayal is certainly winning (and rightly award-winning) and watching him battle in the political arena of the House of Commons in the early days of his tenure as prime minister is terrific stuff. But the scenes I found truly riveting and want to rave about are not what I thought they’d be going in. I imagined the moments at home between Churchill and his beloved wife Clemmie (beautifully played by Kristin Scott Thomas) that offer both a counterpoint to the political machinations as well as a fascinating insight on what a family has to deal with when a member of them is in the public eye, would be the ones that I’d respond to. And though these are tremendous moments in the movie, it’s the scenes between Oldman and Ben Mendelsohn‘s wonderful portrayal as King George VI that really packed the emotional punch for me.

Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill and Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI in Darkest Hour

Oldman’s Churchill forges a key friendship with Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI

From their very first meeting, which shares with the moment where Elizabeth Layton met Churchill in that it’s another example of Bruno Delbonnel’s exquisite cinematography, we see two men thrown together in a relationship neither is initially comfortable with. The King had wanted Lord Halifax as his PM and he didn’t take kindly to having to deal with Churchill’s more forthright manner. But step-by-step, meeting by meeting, they begin to communicate on the issues that matter and respect develops between them. It’s great to see Mendelsohn, who’s played extremely dark characters in movies like Animal Kingdom and the more recent Rogue One, flex his acting muscles in a different way to give us a buttoned-up but tender study of a man who could be seen as Churchill’s antithesis, in that he never thought or had planned he would be king – whereas Churchill had dreamed of being in the high office from a small boy. Having found himself in the role, George’s connection with Churchill, similar to the one he has with therapist Lionel Logue in the events covered in The King’s Speech, proves vital to both his success on the throne and the way in which Hitler was thwarted in the circumstances this film recreates.

Listening to Churchill’s stirring speeches (and seeing them being crafted) gives you such a sense of pride when you’re watching DARKEST HOUR. In the face of tyranny, Britain didn’t back down but stood fast over the key month we see here. The incredible evacuation of Dunkirk was that period’s defining moment but Wright also shows us the pain of the decisions Churchill has to make, such as ordering the small group of British soldiers to hold a particular garrison until the end and then the consequence of that when the Germans bomb those soldiers from overhead. We see a dizzying shot of the camera travelling upwards from the garrison’s commander until it reaches the plane far above and then we watch as the bomb is released, falling to its destination, destroying everything in its path.

It’s here again that Delbonnel‘s camerawork had me in raptures. I admired his work on the Coen brothers Inside Llewyn Davis, where his sepia-like images of early 1960s New York were enthralling. Here he floods whole frames with light, from singling out Churchill as he holds his ground in a Commons debate, to filling a whole window to illuminate the figures in its beam – it’s breathtaking. Whilst Oldman’s sensational performance is the driving force of the movie and reason alone for you to see DARKEST HOUR, I can only say that Wright and Delbonnel should be similarly praised for bringing Anthony McCarten’s deftly drawn screenplay so thrillingly to life. See this.