The icon of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill still seems to fascinate us as much as it always has. I say the icon, because what we’ve seen of this figure so far in dramatised film and television seems a lot more preoccupied with the image of the man than the man himself, as much as they try to inject perfunctory humanity and drama into the portrayal. In the past year, we’ve seen Churchill on our screens twice - first in the Nextlix series ‘The Crown’, followed by the film ‘Churchill’. Now, and most prestigiously, we have ‘Darkest Hour’ from acclaimed director Joe Wright, and released just in time for awards season. With those previous two portraits lacking in many ways, is this third attempt worth the effort, or does it fall into the same traps?
‘Darkest Hour’ looks at the circumstances under which Churchill (Gary Oldman) became Prime Minister during the Second World War in 1940, how quickly he was deemed unsatisfactory for the position and how his handling of the imminent invasion changed both his fortunes and that of the war. Where the film sets itself apart from its predecessors is in its approach - screenwriter Anthony McCarten tells the story with a surprising amount of wit and vigour, which Wright picks up and goes to town with, resulting in a far funnier and more entertaining film than you'd expect.
There’s a lot that feels distinctly British about ‘Darkest Hour’, a kind of "get on with it" attitude and cheeky sense of humour that wins you over surprisingly quickly. It’s almost two different films, the first concentrating on Churchill becoming Prime Minister and the second focused more on the war itself, but this ends up being to its advantage, allowing the groundwork of the first half to inform the tension and drama of the second. Joe Wright has made a few blunders of late (I’m sure most people have rightly forgotten about ‘Pan’), but his work on ‘Darkest Hour’ recalls the ingenuity that he’d shown in his best films, such as ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (2005) and ‘Anna Karenina’ (2012). The film moves at a cracking pace, feeling its two hour length but filling it with so many great moments that it feels justified. You experience the constant and careful to-and-fro of the film, moments of palpable tension and drama earned with moments of lightness and comedy. This feels far more immediate than most period films (and certainly more than the previous Churchill projects) both thanks to the energy with which Wright and his team approach the material and in how they allow it to speak to contemporary concerns of politics gone amok.
SWITCH: 'DARKEST HOUR' TRAILER
What really dictates this unexpected energy though is Gary Oldman’s performance, easily the centrepiece of the film. He was an inspired choice to play Churchill, and the film reaps many benefits from his presence and influence. His Churchill may still look old and carry a stick, but he leaps and bounds across the screen, always with a glint in his eye and the threat of a tempest of words. Oldman is as fascinated with his flaws as with his attributes, making for a not-always dignified Churchill but one who feels more accurate and easier to relate to. It’s an absolutely sterling performance, easily the finest Churchill we’ve seen and one that refuses to play by the rules. Oldman isn’t interested in creating an icon but someone that lives, breathes, swears, sweats and even shits. That energy and irreverence seeps into the film itself and into the other performances, particularly some terrific work from Lily James as his secretary Elizabeth and Kristen Scott Thomas as his Clementine Churchill.
Not everything about ‘Darkest Hour’ works though. As great as Oldman’s performance is, the make-up he endures is not, a grotesque caricature of Churchill that never sold me. Oldman looks nothing like Churchill, but the make-up attempts to fix this, morphing his features in ways that seem unnatural and, in the end, turn out to be wildly distracting rather than maintaining the illusion. McCarten also relies on the same narrative trope that both ‘The Crown’ and ‘Churchill’ did by using the "new secretary comes to work for Churchill and helps him find his humanity" narrative that, while more successful here than before, is still a dumb and lazy trope that shouldn’t have been used in the first place, robbing the film of some of the freshness that made it unique. Also like the other Churchill projects, the women are underwritten and underused, though both James and Scott Thomas push hard against those restrictions to be far more memorable than they could have been. ‘Darkest Hour’ tries to circumnavigate those tired biopic tropes, but still falls for them occasionally in stark contrast to its originality. Finally, and this is not the film’s fault, but it also suffers in the wake of Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’, the final act of the film covering the evacuation as well, and while it’s obviously told from a different perspective, the moments of similarity suffer in comparison to Nolan’s visceral masterpiece.
Gary Oldman's Churchill may still look old and carry a stick, but he leaps and bounds across the screen, always with a glint in his eye and the threat of a tempest of words.
Those misgivings aside, ‘Darkest Hour’ is still a tremendously exciting, surprisingly entertaining and at times genuinely moving film. Wright captures the spirit of the man and the threat of the Nazi invasion in a way that feels palpable and immediate, making it more than a tired period drama, and Oldman’s performance, while caked in unnecessary make-up, is as rousing and detailed as we all hoped. You will inevitably learn a lot from ‘Darkest Hour’, but like the best history lessons, you’ll find yourself captivated and engrossed in it from beginning to end. This probably isn’t the awards darling we (or it) thought it would be, but it’s still a damn good film.