Directed by: Joe Wright
Premise: In 1940, Neville Chamberlain is forced out of his position as British Prime Minister and succeeded by Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman). The new prime minister must hold together a governing coalition while preparing the nation for the war ahead.
What Works: Darkest Hour is about a man seizing the moment and consolidating his power in a desperate situation and the movie makes for a solid piece of historical filmmaking. As portrayed in this film, Winston Churchill recognized the threat represented by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis and he pressed for war while most everyone else looked for a diplomatic solution. The story runs along two tracks: the first is the politics within the United Kingdom’s ruling class. Churchill becomes Prime Minster even though no one in his party really wants him in that position and he must outmaneuver the political machinations of Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) and Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) as they try to force Churchill into peace talks or remove him from office if he refuses. This is done well and Darkest Hour offers a more nuanced take on Neville Chamberlain than popular history has usually allowed. The second story track is the evacuation of the British army from France. As the Nazis close in on the British army the pressure mounts on Churchill to cut a deal and so each of these story tracks impacts the other in a way that escalates the stakes. Darkest Hour has some impressive visuals. The movie is mostly shot in a realistic style but it occasionally uses color or composite cinematography in a way that is impactful but not distracting. The primary attraction of Darkest Hour is the lead performance of Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill. Hidden under an impressive makeup job, Oldman disappears into the role and he is both funny and intimidating, sometimes in the same scene.
What Doesn’t: Darkest Hour assumes a great deal of foreknowledge about World War II on the part of the audience. As a result, viewers who are familiar with the history of the war and specifically the evacuation of Dunkirk and British politics of the time will probably get the most out of the movie. Like a lot of biographical pictures, Darkest Hour tends toward the great man theory, in which powerful leaders bend the course of history through their actions. The theory isn’t without some merit and that understanding of history lends itself well to drama. However, Darkest Hour leans into the great man theory a little too hard. The movie treats Churchill as a savior instead of a fallible human being. The movie never really gets into Churchill’s head and he remains a distant and legendary figure. In fact, virtually everyone in Darkest Hour remains that way. Kristin Scott Thomas is criminally underused in her role as Churchill’s wife Clemmie and she is little more than a prop in her husband’s story. Also underutilized is Lilly James as Churchill’s secretary. They get a few effective moments together but James’ character remains one dimensional.
Bottom Line: Darkest Hour is more successful as a historical drama than it is as a character study. Viewers are unlikely to come away with a deeper understanding of Winston Churchill or World War II but the film tells its story well and has an engaging performance by Gary Oldman.
Episode: #680 (December 31, 2017)