Film Review: Darkest Hour

On the brink of defeat in the early days of World War II, Winston Churchill is named prime minister and rallies Great Britain to fight against Germany. Polished Oscar bait with an award-worthy performance by Gary Oldman.
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On the heels of performances by Brian Cox (Churchill) and John Lithgow (Netflix's “The Crown”), Gary Oldman dons padding and prosthetics to portray Winston Churchill as he almost singlehandedly rescues Great Britain from defeat at the hands of Germany. Easy to admire but harder to like, Darkest Hour works better the less you know about history.

Anthony McCarten's screenplay zeroes in on a few crucial weeks in 1940. While German troops overrun Europe, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup)—who earlier negotiated with Axis powers—is forced from his seat. He is replaced by Churchill, the only figure who can marshal enough support to run the government.

Churchill inherits problems on all sides. British air and sea power can't compete against the Germans, while 300,000 members of its army are trapped at Dunkirk. Churchill faces resistance from the military and from Parliament, where Chamberlain and his ally, Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), are actively plotting against him. Churchill's past, including his calamitous leadership at Gallipoli in the previous war, haunts his decisions. So do his heavy drinking and poor sleeping habits. Even King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) has his doubts.

Director Joe Wright approaches the story studiously, carefully capturing Churchill's life of privilege and eccentricities. Darkest Hour makes the most of its posh palace interiors, artfully cramped war rooms and vintage outfits. Wright even throws in a couple of tracking shots that evoke his widely praised Dunkirk scene in Atonement.

Unfortunately, Wright doesn't trust the strength of his material. Oldman blusters his way through Churchill's speeches, working up enough energy to win his political opponents and viewers alike to his side. These are some of the most stirring calls to action of his century, and they can be thrilling to watch. Oldman is fine in his domestic scenes as well, matched by Kristin Scott Thomas as Churchill's long-suffering wife, Clementine. But Darkest Hour spends far too much time trying to depict how those speeches came about. Churchill dictates them from his bed, or recites them in his bathtub, usually while berating his secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James). In one made-up scene, Churchill boards the Underground, gaining inspiration from commuters before tackling his peers. Director of photography Bruno Delbonnel employs an arsenal of effects: close-ups of giant typewriter keys, banks of radio equipment, even cutaways of Layton as she mouths her boss's words in the background.

Some viewers may prefer this kind of handholding, but coupled with McCarten's romanticized version of Churchill, it makes Darkest Hour feel biased and unreliable. The movie's tunnel vision suggests that Churchill was the only person in government to understand the Nazi threat. Maybe the only person in world politics, given how the movie depicts French and American leaders.

Oldman stands up to the script's drawbacks, to the syrupy soundtrack score, and to Wright's often stodgy directing. It's a performance with dedication and insight, one that will stand out in his long career.

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