During the early days of World War II, the fate of Western Europe hangs on the newly-appointed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who must decide whether to negotiate with Hitler or fight on against incredible odds.
Winston Churchill’s probably the most famous orator/alcoholic to have existed in the Twentieth century. Almost every public speech Churchill ever gave exists on some senior yearbook page somewhere. Of course, all his quotes make him sound like a grump and a raging alcoholic. “Darkest Hour” gives us insight, not only to the spirit of Winston Churchill but just how precariously perched the entire kingdom of England was during World War Two.
“Darkest Hour” (titled after Churchill’s written history of the Second World War) displays incredible amounts of realism. The production design, above all else, stands out as the key piece lifting us from a drab set into something as ornate and decorative from the telephones to the streets to the royal palace’s golden curtains and large mirrors.
Gary Oldman, hardly recognizable as our Lord and savior Winston Churchill, delivers on an impressive performance. Everything from the scowl to the laugh down to tapping his ring finger on the wood brings to life a character often seen from a distance. With surprising performances from all of his supporting cast (and my personal hero Ben Mendelssohn), the story comes to life. The issue, though, is the English spirit. The film follows more of the politics behind England’s war effort than the actual war itself.
Historically, Churchill warned about Hitler well before he invaded Poland. As the Germans rout each nation on their way to the French coast, the desperation in the halls of power grows and nobody is safe. Elaborate camera moves tilt, raise, lock, and swirl around the actors as each person debates the finer points of war through swirling clouds of light.
Gary Oldman’s Churchill dives into the effort of raising a nation to war, with no allies, no resources, and little success. Instead, we’re reminded that Churchill’s greatest asset were his words. We get long scenes of him crafting speeches. Tight close-ups on a typewriter being punched and single letters imprinting on the paper. The screenwriter probably had a blast researching Churchill’s most poignant moment as well as his weakest time.
While we, the audience, have the benefit of hindsight, this movie impresses upon us the uncertainty of every decision made during World War Two. I didn’t even know England wanted to sue for peace, and the obstacles Churchill overcame. Our hindsight is what gives the movie stakes. We know that if the UK had sued for peace the Germans might have won World War Two and changed the game entirely. So for us, we want Churchill to succeed, even if he does it boorishly.
I enjoyed the film generally. The sweeping camera angles, elaborate spotlighting, and precise production design makes the film incredibly well polished. A directing veteran coached this movie into existence on the back of Gary Oldman’s stunning portrayal. Yet still, the movie seems too occupied with explaining the war to either fully give us an honest portrayal of Churchill’s personal life (we only ever see him struggle in his professional life). That’s why I say it’s dry. For a film about such a pivotal moment in history, so few scenes stirred me as thoroughly as I had hoped. I’d recommend waiting for it to go to DVD. It’d be just as enjoyable then.
In theaters Friday, December 8th