It’s tempting to wonder how the cinema world would have coped this past year if not for films set during World War II. There’s been Christopher Nolan’s majestic Dunkirk, of course, and Churchill, starring Brian Cox having a gallant stab at playing a troubled, hesitant Winston.
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And now comes Darkest Hour, with Gary Oldman playing Winston Churchill just after he becomes prime minister, finding himself widely disliked in Parliament and up against political opponents all too ready to appease Herr Hitler. It’s directed, with a great deal of verve, by Joe Wright, who himself has form with this historical period – one of the highlights of his superior 2007 film Atonement was a bravura sequence that showed the chaos and misery on the beach at Dunkirk in a single five-minute tracking shot.
Nothing in Darkest Hour quite approaches that moment, nor indeed the ambition and vision of Nolan’s Dunkirk. But it does have a superb performance by Oldman, one that promises to make him a serious awards contender this season. Oldman is famous for disappearing (almost literally) into his characters, so assiduously does he portray them; his extraordinary performance as the impassive George Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy easily proves the point.
Here Oldman, his clothes padded and his face made to look older by prosthetic work, assumes the mantle of Churchill and goes to town on his role, brilliantly capturing the great man’s cadences when he delivers his memorable, rousing speeches. He’s magnetic.
The best aspect of screenwriter Anthony McCarten’s script is the political intrigue between Churchill, his predecessor Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and the calculating Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), both of whom urge him in vain to instigate peace talks with Germany. The excellent casting doesn’t stop there: Churchill’s wife Clementine is subtly portrayed with eye-rolling exasperation by the reliably splendid Kristin Scott Thomas.
Darkest Hour does not set out to sanctify Churchill; it shows he could be bullying and rude – and a little too fond of liquor. But beneath all this his charm also shines through.
Nowhere is this more in evidence than a scene so contrasting it almost belongs in some other film, in which Churchill, late for Parliament because of dense traffic, boards a Tube train for just one stop and engages in conversation with ordinary people, all of them slack-jawed at seeing the great man on public transport. They quickly warm to him and respond enthusiastically to his defiant opposition to Hitler – which will strengthen his resolve after he arrives at the Commons. The one problem here is that this one-stop journey feels as if it lasts about 15 minutes – by which time the train might be somewhere in the Essex countryside. Still, it fulfils a dramatic purpose.
It’s a competent piece of work, then, and a mostly interesting one. Gary Oldman is by far the best reason to see it, and anyone hoping for a stellar portrayal of a legendary Englishman will not go away disappointed.