'Darkest Hour': Film Review | Telluride 2017

A crowd-pleasing account of Churchill's rising to the occasion.

Joe Wright's film stars Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill during his early days as prime minister at the beginning of World War II.

Conveniently arriving in the wake of one of the biggest and best-received films of the year, Dunkirk, Darkest Hour shows what was simultaneously going on in the halls of power on the other side of the Channel while Britain’s armed forces were on the verge of being wiped out in May 1940. Recovering from the fiasco that was Pan, director Joe Wright has made a snappy and straightforward crowd-pleaser that focuses on new Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s mighty efforts to rise to the occasion of rescuing his country from the appeasers and defeatists in Parliament and stirring the public to defiance of Adolf Hitler. Subtle and nuanced the film is not, but Gary Oldman’s robust performance will help put it over as a solid performer upon its Nov. 22 release.

The public appetite for all things Churchillian has certainly been increased of late due to the great success of Netflix’s series The Crown and John Lithgow’s vastly entertaining performance as the significantly older Sir Winston in his waning years of power. The far more slim and slight Gary Oldman is certainly not the first person one would think of to cast in the role, but he throws himself into the part with vigor and enthusiasm and you have to hand it to an actor who can convincingly play both Sid Vicious and, with the assistance of some pretty wondrous prosthetic makeup, Winston Churchill in the course of his career.

The screenplay by Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything) covers the weeks between Churchill’s ascension to leadership in the wake of previous Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy of Hitler to Churchill’s celebrated “We shall fight!” speech in Parliament that roused the public to the imperatives of national defense against fascism.

Although the film is obliged to stick close to the historical record in telling this world-turning story, it’s clear from the outset that the writer, director and actor intend to inject as much amusement value into the piece as possible; they first show a cranky Churchill in bed breakfasting on whiskey, eggs, a cigar and champagne and inadvertently exposing his nether-regions beneath his bed shirt to his nervous new secretary, Elizabeth (Lily James).

Whereas The Crown has been acute, subtle, nuanced and satisfyingly insider-ish in its presentation of the private doings of Britain’s ruling elite, Darkest Hour paints with a broader brush as it reveals a ruling hierarchy dominated by appeasers — including not only Chamberlain but the darkly motivated Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) and the Churchill-disdaining King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn).

Compared to how he's presented in many other biographical accounts, Churchill here appears to be startlingly unprepared upon being confronted with the nation’s dire threat to its national security and survival. This is the man who had through the 1930s earned the scorn of most politicians for his endless warnings about the growing German military machine and was still mistrusted due to his Gallipoli fiasco of World War I.

His first speech to Parliament is not well received and, with news from Europe getting worse by the day, the government essentially moves underground to beehive quarters where Churchill endures contentious meetings with his war council, which, led by Halifax, is close to drawing to a consensus on negotiating terms with Hitler via Mussolini. The 300,000 British troops being pushed to the sea at Dunkirk are beginning to look doomed, and there is a shocking phone call one night in which Churchill fruitlessly begs for help from U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose hands are tied by the nation’s neutrality.

McCarten’s scene writing is tart and efficient, and Wright infuses the drama with unquestioned energy. But this is a film in which every point and meaning is hit directly on the nose; understatement is nowhere to be found in a work that makes sure to stage at least one scene in which the prime minister is taking a dump and numerous others in which he rants and raves, sometimes while clearly drunk.

Oldman enthusiastically plays right into this with a boisterous performance that, physically and vocally, may not match up precisely with the Churchill the public can still behold in any number of vintage newsreels and recordings but which, ironically, may help win the old lion a new generation of fans.

This effect may be boosted by a hokey but key invented scene in which the prime minister, who has been close to capitulation to the defeatist faction, goes rogue and jumps on the tube the morning of his big speech to Parliament. Here, he gets the boost he needs from ordinary people, who inspire him with their defiant attitudes toward the Nazis and their determination to fight, to keep the barbarians from their island. Thus inspired, Churchill gives his most famous speech and the tide of history begins to turn.

The important supporting performances are one-dimensional but well handled. Ronald Pickup is right on the nose playing the dying Chamberlain (Pickup stepped into the role at the last minute when the originally cast John Hurt died just before production started), while Kristin Scott Thomas breezes into a few scenes to show how completely Churchill’s wife Clemmie understood her often difficult but brilliant husband. James’ role is entirely functional, although very helpfully so in one instance.

Production values are solid, although Dario Marianelli’s score is intrusive in many instances, laying on the obvious when less could have been more. The film’s actual depiction of Dunkirk is limited to one shot of dozens of boats sailing away from the white cliffs toward France, and there is nothing in this film remotely as exceptional as the jaw-dropping take Wright pulled off in Atonement that evoked the experience of Dunkirk in a single extended shot. 

Production company: Working Title Films
Distributor: Focus Features
Cast: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ronald Pickup, Samuel West, Ben Mendelsohn, Ronald Pickup, Hannah Steele
Director: Joe Wright
Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Lisa Bruce, Anthony McCarten, Douglas Urbanski
Executive producers: James Biddle, Lucas Webb, Liza Chasin
Director of photography: Bruno Delbonnel
Production designer: Sarah Greenwood
Costume designer: Jacqueline Durran
Editor: Valerio Bonelli
Music: Dario Marianelli
Casting: Jina Jay
Venue: Telluride Film Festival

125 minutes