Darkest Hour — not to be confused with The Darkest Hour, a terrible “horror” movie from 2011 that no one saw or remembers — is a new biopic from director Joe Wright that tells the story of Winston Churchill.
You remember Joe Wright; he’s the man who made the 2005 version of Pride & Prejudice (yes, I’ve actually seen Pride & Prejudice and it was splendid) and the 2011 surprise hit Hanna. He’s worked on other period pieces as well — such as Atonement and Anna Karenina. And he’s had a few less than stellar outings, like The Soloist and Pan (*shudders while remembering that movie*).
Darkest Hour, however, is not like Pan at all. This takes a look back at 1940s England — something that’s very much in Wright’s wheelhouse — and explores the complexity of Churchill’s rise to power.
Darkest Hour also doesn’t attempt to cover the entire life of Winston Churchill (an unrecognizable Gary Oldman), or even the entire span of his time as Prime Minister. Rather, it focuses on the first couple weeks of his monarchy, when the country was bracing itself for war, and Churchill had to decide how they would handle the situation.
Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) didn’t do such a good job at handling that situation during his time as Prime Minister. Granted, he wasn’t the worst leader the country ever had and he’s still a significant member of Parliament after he’s voted out of his position, but he was not the leader they needed at that moment.
Churchill wasn't supposed to be next in line, either. The position was supposed to go to Edward Wood, 3rd Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), a man strongly advocating for peace treaties with the Germans. Churchill, however, was the only person that both parties could agree with, and therefore he was given the job.
The job is a near-impossible one. At the time of May 1940, Germany is slowly taking over Europe. They’ve already invaded Belgium and the Netherlands, and have set their sights on England next. They also have no support from any other countries or their own army, even, as most of the troops are stranded at the battle of Dunkirk.
By all accounts, surrendering would have been the easiest and, perhaps, even the sanest decision. Churchill, however, wouldn’t think of it. He was known for his ‘go-get-em!’ type of attitude (as well as having an abrasive personality and heavily drinking throughout the day) and refused to give in to the Nazis. He demanded that the country continue to fight on, as he worked through the fine points of how to make the feasible.
For starters, there’s no question that Gary Oldman is getting nominated for Darkest Hour. Similar to how Daniel Day-Lewis portrayed Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln, this looks and feels like the real Winston Churchill we’re watching. While there’s echoes of Oldman’s voice and some of his acting mannerisms in the performance, he completely transforms himself to become a different person.
A different person who is captivating to watch. We likely all know a little about Winston Churchill, or at least have heard him referenced before. But Darkest Hour really goes the extra mile to explore what kind of person he was and how he held up in these trying times. There are many different sides to Churchill — all of which Oldman magnificently portrays — as they bring life and humanity into this complicated figure.
Complicated, at least in real life. While Darkest Hour does a great many of things right when dealing with Churchill, the movie never really bothers to explore the more unpleasant aspects of the man. The issues that are being dealt with are all complex and double-sided, yet — for the most part — Darkest Hour paints them in black-and-white. Churchill is always the hero, anyone who opposes him is the villain, and that’s that.
Despite this, the story Darkest Hour is telling is an engaging one. It ultimately can’t quite live up to the performance that Oldman is giving, but that’s just because he’s so good and no script could ever match that. Still, they take the audience through the issue step-by-step and really explain why Churchill was such an important figure.
They also dive into the relationships he had with the people around him — which was some of the more interesting aspects of the film to watch. Whether it be his wife Clemmie (Kristin Scott Thomas), King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) or his secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James, who is also excellent), the various conversations he has with people close to him ultimately serve as a tool out bring out the life in Churchill.
Sometimes the film can take that a little too far, and in one scene in particular — one that happens on a train, that you’ll recognize instantly — it can all become a bit far-fetched and made for television-like.
But even still, Darkest Hour presents a captivating figure with an incredible story and an engaging enough story to follow behind it. It may not be the best film of the year and, truth be told, Pride & Prejudice is probably still the better film, but it’s an interesting part of history that’s worth looking into. And yes, Darkest Hour would pair perfectly with Dunkirk for a double feature.
Did you see Darkest Hour? What did you think of the movie? Do you think Gary Oldman will win the Oscar for best actor? Watch the trailer for the film here and let us know in the comments below!
The 'Dunkirk' sequel we've been waiting for: 'Darkest Hour' review8