Director: Joe Wright
Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten
Kristin Scott Thomas
Runtime: 125 mins.
Australian Release Date: 1 January 2018
Previewed at: Event Cinemas, George Street, Sydney, on 5 December 2017.
Gary Oldman delivers a blistering portrayal of Winston Churchill in Joe Wright's Darkest Hour, the latest film to depict events in the life of the great British Prime Minister during World War ll. This one concentrates on the build-up to the threat of invasion of England by the German forces, who have been steadily advancing through France and are about to force their way across the Channel, having obliterated the Allied forces cornered on the beaches of Dunkirk. That, at least, seemed to be their plan and the British appeared incapable of stopping the juggernaut. The newly appointed PM is faced with the unenviable challenge of either negotiating with the enemy (which many in his War Cabinet were urging him to do), thus sparing the trapped troops from possible annihilation, or devising an escape plan while building the morale of the public. It required a delicate balancing act.
Wright and his NZ scriptwriter Anthony McCarten pull no punches in covering this very dramatic four-week period in May 1940, a time that could be fairly described as changing the course of the war. This is history and they're naming names. Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) had been forced to resign as PM due to his willingness to accommodate Germany’s expansion in Europe but there were plenty of other Conservatives keen to follow the same path. No-one was too enthusiastic with replacing Chamberlain with Churchill because of his disastrous role in the defeat at Gallipoli in WWI and he certainly wasn't the choice of King George VI (the excellent Ben Mendelsohn). The Conservative Party and the King wanted Edward Wood, 1st Earl of Halifax (Stephen Dillane), to lead the country but he refused their advances. Ultimately, there was no alternative to Churchill because he was the only candidate that all parties could agree on. He, however, was adamantly opposed to any appeasement with the Nazis and thus a game of brinkmanship took place as the supporters of these two opposing positions jockeyed for power. How this all played out is the subject of Wright's film.
Oldman is unrecognisable and conveys the sense of Churchill's indomitable power, while letting us see that this was a figure plagued by doubt and human vulnerability. He constantly reminds us of the enormity of the decisions that had to be made by a man who was responsible for the state of a nation and the lives of the men who were defending it. Oldman adeptly shows us the toll it must have taken on Churchill. He is supported by a stellar cast including Kristin Scott Thomas, superb as Winston's long-suffering wife and the only person able to confront him with his failings, and Lily James as his equally put-upon secretary. Both roles were also finely portrayed in Jonathan Teplitzky's Churchill (by Miranda Richardson and Ella Purnell as the secretary, albeit a different one) and it is interesting to view both films to compare how the different actors approach their portrayals.
Somehow Darkest Hour is visually more authentic because the tone lives up to its title. Utilising subdued lighting and sombre production design, Darkest Hour provides another platform in cinematic history, depicting an important, significant period. With the prior release of Churchill last year, there was much anticipation surrounding this film and, dare I say, a slight ‘not another one’ attitude prevailing over the release, however, such fears can now be abandoned - Darkest Hour is riveting.