Joe Wright's Darkest Hour
could easily be viewed as a companion piece to Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk
, and I'm sure both will soon become part of a double feature someday. It tells the same series of events, only from a different point of view. While Nolan's film was an intense and immersive action film about the soldiers stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk, Wright's film takes place in the hallways of British parliament, where the debate is just how to save those soldiers, and whether England should pursue a peace treaty with the advancing Axis forces.
The film is told in a simple but effective day by day approach (subtitles count off the days that have passed), which gives the film its own kind of intensity. As the days tick by, the pressure rises, and we see how different people in power were reacting to the situation. At the center of it all is Gary Oldman as Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Not only is he completely unrecognizable here, but he is probably giving one of the best performances of his entire career. The physical transformation he has undergone here simply has to be seen. The make up drowns his face in jowls, and his walk is heavy and deliberate. Even his voice, complete with indistinguishable mumbles between words, sounds accurate here. When he recreates some of Churchill's famous speeches, we feel the same intensity. And he also gets to occasionally show the softer side of the man, such as when a woman on a train mentions that her baby looks like him, and he simply replies "all babies look like me".
not only does a magnificent job of recreating the famous events of the period, but simply in just creating the time and place of the era. The scenes where Churchill watches the world pass by from the backseat of his car manages to show us the feeling and tone of the people at the time without any dialogue or bombastic music that tries to tell us how we're supposed to feel. And even though we never really get to experience the battlefield, there is still a battle raging in the house of power. Churchill's strategy of standing against the invading Axis forces is in stark contrast to the opinions of some of his fellow politicians, particularly Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), who wants to take a more diplomatic approach with Hitler. Although Churchill eventually gains the support of King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), he still faces opposition at pretty much all sides as he tries to rally the people to continue to fight.
And while this is clearly Oldman's movie, he is backed up by a powerful supporting cast, especially Kristen Scott Thomas as Churchill's wife, who shares some wonderful and personal moments with him that have a certain sweetness that makes you wish someone would make a full movie about their relationship through the years. Lily James (from Downton Abbey
) is also effective as Churchill's new secretary, who almost leaves the job minutes after being on it, but stays on and learns how best to work with him. It's also interesting to watch Mendelsohn as King George VI, considering he was played so memorably by Colin Firth in The King's Speech
a few years ago. Mendelsohn is wise not to overplay the King's famous stutter, and is able to create his own interpretation of the character, so we are not constantly reminded of Firth's portrayal.
But what drew me into the story beyond the performances was Joe Wright's directing style. He opens with a complex and beautiful shot which starts at the
ceiling of the House of Commons before descending to ground level and
approaching the speech-maker from the side. The movie never features a shot this complex again, but he frequently employs long, unedited shots which go against the current popular style of quick cuts and rapid edits. This allows us to savor the details in his settings and recreation of the time period. I also admired how the screenplay by Anthony McCarten goes for a historical, rather than the emotional approach. And even when the movie does go emotional, as in a scene late in the film where Churchill rides on the London Underground with some commoners, it never feels implausible.
Like the best historical films, Darkest Hour
simply looks at an important period in a historical figure's life, rather than trying to cram their entire life into a two hour narrative. It also transports us to the time, and gives us a feeling of being there. From Oldman's incredible performance, right down to the settings and music score, this is a movie that feels genuine and never once hits a false note.