“We shall fight them on the beaches, in the streets and in the hills”. Or maybe we won’t fight them at all. That knife-edge moment, when Britain chose whether to fight or fall, is the focus of Darkest Hour. Churchill is the new Prime Minister. But his biggest battle is not with Herr Hitler – it’s with his own cabinet. The nation’s fate rests on Churchill’s personality. And it’s a tense, funny and surprisingly cinematic encounter.
A film smothered in cigar smoke and talky tension, this could’ve been a stifling experience. That it’s not is down to director Joe Wright (Atonement) and to a mesmerising central performance from Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor).
The West Wing with waistcoats this isn’t. Darkest Hour gives double value. A well-woven script, roots us in the reality of the moment; no revisionism here (as with last year’s misfire Churchill). Wright imbues it with a visual truth that makes the film well worth seeing on the big screen.
In a signature tracking shot, Churchill’s journey to the Palace takes in a slo-mo bustle of humanity. At times, the camera sweeps up from a grounded viewpoint - a doomed soldier, a child – to reveal the wider war, flashes of fire carpeting across the screen. All the while, Wright’s five-time muse, Dario Marianelli, scores the film with thrumming rhythms and musical jokes, capturing Churchill’s character and crisis.
Oldman gives an Oscar-worthy, multi-layered performance – literally so, underneath Kazuhiro’s Tsuji’s flawless latex. He’s funny, vulnerable, and pugnacious. “Will you please stop interrupting me while I’m interrupting you” he shouts, capturing the self-aware anger and humour of the man. With his long-suffering wife, Clementine (Kristin Scott-Thomas), you believe the tender strength of their history together.
Bawling out his new PA (Lily James, Cinderella), then bonding with her, you see in Oldman the cost of what’s at stake. With Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup, excellent) and the Foreign Secretary (Stephen Dillane, equally so) plotting his downfall, and a peace deal with Mussolini, Churchill’s isolation is vividly rendered, framed in doorways and lifts. A brilliant, long-held shot sees Churchill bathed in angry, portentous red light, delivering his first radio address to the nation. It’s a searing, heart-catching moment.
Lighter moments still pack a punch. Kissing the monarch’s hand, Churchill doesn’t see that he wipes it afterwards. Aussie actor Ben Mendelsohn (Animal Kingdom) conveys the King’s conflicted dignity in every intonation and movement. David Strathairn (Good Night and Good Luck), gives a pitch-perfect comedy cameo as President Roosevelt, a laugh-out loud scene that also underscores Churchill’s friendlessness – a V-sign to the ‘special relationship’.
Not everything works. Wright’s attempt to externalise Churchill as in-tune with the public, sees the fish out of water PM on a tube train asking plucky Londoners if he should give in. Done with humour it still sticks out in an otherwise subtle film.
When many associate Churchill with a nodding dog on a dashboard, this is a vivid, timely and gripping depiction of a man, and a moment, that changed our history.