12th – 25th January, DCA
Jowly and squat in stature, Winston Churchill is one of the most recognisable British figures of the twentieth century, a status which draws extra scrutiny to those who would portray him. However, Gary Oldman’s outstanding portrayal of the Prime Minister is nothing short of a masterclass; he perfects the frequently underplayed lisp in Churchill’s manner of speech, whilst ensuring that the guttural familiarity of his voice remains present. Despite playing a character who will forever be remembered for his boldness and courage, Oldman reveals a vulnerability in the man charged with defending the nation against the tyranny of evil.
Darkest Hour begins on the eve of Churchill’s appointment, following calls from the Labour opposition for Neville Chamberlain’s resignation. Despite objections from several of his fellow Conservatives, Churchill takes the helm, liaising with King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) and his newly formed War Cabinet in a desperate attempt to halt an imminent Nazi invasion. Serving as Churchill’s Foreign Secretary Viscount Halifax, Stephen Dillane does an excellent job of capturing one man’s resolve to search for an alternative solution to Hitler’s impending invasion. By suggesting that Britain take up Italy’s offer to negotiate peace talks between the two nations, Dillane cuts a cold, calculating figure who serves as the perfect foil for the more charismatic Churchill.
With the film revolving around this central dilemma, Anthony McCarten’s script excels at peppering the more serious discussions with a light hearted humour befitting the film’s PG rating. Yes, there are explosive speeches and yes, the intensity of a country on the brink of defeat is palpable but, thanks to McCarten’s clever writing, some form of comic relief is never far away. This ensures that the film does not become bogged down in a strategic mire of battle plans and tactical exchanges, retaining its entertainment value.
Darkest Hour has already received plaudits for its efforts in production design, cinematography, and costume, hair and makeup; the film has received nominations for an Academy Award in each of these categories, with a good chance of success. It is with masterful precision that Wright brings these components together, giving the film a genuine look and feel of war-time Britain. Whether this is achieved through an incessant haze of smoke enveloping the war room, or an excessively large cigar hanging from the corner of Churchill’s mouth, the aesthetic of the film feels spot on.
Despite their lack of screen time, Lily James and Kristin Scott Thomas make the most of the limited roles they are afforded. James, fulfilling the part of Churchill’s new secretary Elizabeth Layton, is young and terrified of incurring the wrath of her new superior. Acting as a calming influence is Scott Thomas in the role of Clementine ‘Clem’ Churchill, tempering her husband’s ferocity. While both actors provide convincing turns in the roles they are cast, both struggle to make a lasting impact in a film which is dominated by men. However, neither actress is at fault for this; it is simply one of the challenges scriptwriter McCarten doesn’t quite manage to overcome. Given the very specific time period in which the film is set, this is perhaps a rather harsh criticism to be levelled at it. After all, they are attempting to carry out an immensely delicate balancing act, between historical accuracy and enjoyable entertainment. Nevertheless, it has to be said that the scales are decidedly unbalanced when equality of representation is taken into consideration.
Given the proximity of last year’s Churchill, comparisons between the two films are inevitable. While the subject matter of each film differs, both shall ultimately be judged on the power of their leading man. Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Churchill is as captivating as the man himself, and he is a firm favourite to walk away with an Academy Award. As such, Darkest Hour stakes a strong claim to being the defining depiction of one of Britain’s greatest Britons.