SPOILER ALERT: Many of the events in this film will have been discussed in your average history class. However, I will discuss key elements of plot and character specific to this film. If you prefer to see it with a blank slate, I encourage you to watch the film before reading my review.
Hollywood is notorious for churning out biopics that focus on the "great man" story year after year. We are well-accustomed to the cradle-to-grave story about someone who had a major accomplishment or who had a hand in key world events. But Darkest Hour steers clear of the biopic cliches by tuning its accute attention to the power of words in the story of one of the foremost figures in the 20th century - Winston Churchill.
As Churchill, Gary Oldman gives the best performance of his storied career and one of the better performances in recent memory. The makeup artists in this film might very well win an Oscar, as Oldman is almost unrecognizable but looks very much like Britain's wartime prime minister. His vocal inflections and facial expressions are all impeccable. There may be other actors who have a shot, but it's hard for me to see anyone other than Oldman as the frontrunner for the Best Actor Oscar this March.
Instead of the common cradle-to-grave story, Darkest Hour goes for another common biopic strategy as it focuses on one key period in Churchill's life - his acension to the role of prime minister and the ensuing tensions surrounding Operation Dynamo.
We meet Churchill as his new secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) is taking the place of her recently-dismissed predecessor. Churchill berates her for getting a word wrong as he dictates his speech to her to type. From the beginning of the movie, we get a sense for just how important words will be to this narrative.
It is fascinating to me that Darkest Hour came out in the same year as Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk. The two films would make a fantastic dual showing, as they both focus on one of the century's most important moments from different points of view. They are both quality films on their own merits, but it is difficult to keep from comparing them since they deal with such similar subject matter and they came out in the same year. Still, they are completely different films. In Nolan's film, he is trying to put you in the shoes of the soldiers who went through this harrowing experience. I'll never forget the sound of the planes in that movie. This film is far more subdued. It is more interested in getting the viewer to consider the monumental context of the situation, how close it all came to falling apart and how important the words of Winston Churchill proved to be in averting disaster.
I do have one minor criticism, and that is with the film's pacing. It is slow for much of the movie's runtime. I wonder if Wright could have taken out some scenes here and there that are somewhat tangential to the key plot. It is difficult, because with this subject matter, there are so many fascinating avenues to explore. Still, I do think the film gets a little bogged down in history and does not stay tuned to its specific story as much as it should.
I should also note that I saw this film in theaters only days after finishing a book called God and Churchill which was written by Winston Churchill's great-grandson. The book was given to me by my wife's uncle, and I am so glad that I read it before seeing the film. Obviously I had heard about Churchill's exploits, but the book made me more aware of just how reviled Churchill was before he became the prime minister. The film also highlights that fact through some key scenes of reaction from King George VI, played wonderfully by Ben Mendelsohn.
As the film progresses, the tension gradually builds. One of the most powerful aspects of the film is how it shows that Churchill struggled with doubts about what steps to take. We see him finally considering a treaty with Hitler when it seems that all hope is lost just before the evacuation at Dunkirk. One key moment is when Churchill is again dictating to Layton. This time, he is sending a telegram detailing his plans to pursue a treaty with Hitler. He stops at the point when he is about to say Hitler's name. He goes through many loathsome words for this bitter foe and you can see him coming to a realization in his mind. We cannot surrender. We must fight on.
It is another moment where words are brought to the forefront. Along with words, everyday people are given their due importance in this film.
At various points in the film, Churchill is travelling between two points. We see shots of him looking out the window of his car. We see the people outside in slow motion. It is the people of Britain that are so dear to him. This group of citizens - this island that has been a world power for years - is worth fighting for. Later (in a scene that is historically suspect at best and eyeroll-inducing at worst) Churchill goes to the Underground to have a discussion with everyday citizens about what they would do in his shoes. Now, it is well-documented that Churchill would go and talk with people and that he was even known to go AWOL at times. Wright has even acknowleged that this scene was not an accurate portrayal, but is rather a fictionalization of "emotional truth." In any case, I don't think the scene is handled perfectly, but the sentiment is there. Churchill truly cared about the people of Britain and what they wanted to see happen.
One other quality aspect of this film is its cinematography. Bruno Delbonnel is the film's director of photography, and he makes some fascinating choices. My personal favorite shot comes from Churchill's first radio address as prime minister. The red light comes on, and it consumes the shot in a bright red hue with Churchill's solemn face in the frame. There are other memorable shots as well, but some of the best work is left for the film's closing scene.
I won't describe it in hyper-detail to avoid spoiling the effect. But everyone who knows Churchill knows about his "We shall fight on the beaches" speech. The film ends with this rousing oration - once again showing just how powerful Churchill's words were to this momentous occasion in British - and world - history.
I will remember this film mostly for Oldman's fantastic performance, but this film is much more than just a vehicle for its lead actor. It does a masterful job of providing context for this moment in history, and it has a keen eye for craft. It is a fine film and one that I wholeheartedly recommend.
Note on content: The film contains some profanity, but it is not excessive. There is one scene where Churchill walks out of the shower, but the camera only shows his feet. There is no sexual content in the film, and though it takes place during a war, there is very little violence. One scene depicts Germans dropping bombs on a British regiment, but that is the extent of the violent content. The film is rated PG-13 and should be appropriate for most viewers. Since it does have a care for staying mostly true to historical accounts, it also has a great deal of educational value about an important moment in world history.