Directed by: Joe Wright
Starring: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane
Rated PG-13 for some thematic material
2 hr. 5 min.
2017 goes down as the year the cinema fully celebrated Winston Churchill. The knighted, legendary wartime prime minister of the United Kingdom has come alive once more through masterful, dramatic portraits that Anglophiles and history buffs alike will cherish . . . along with those who know little of the man, but enjoy great filmmaking, and Gary Oldman’s indelible performance in Darkest Hour.
Last summer’s Churchill, starring Brian Cox, was a learned, estimable examination of the P.M.’s heavy-hearted decision to endorse the D-Day invasion of Nazi-occupied France. Darkest Hour, directed by Joe Wright (Atonement) takes us back four years earlier, as the German Wehrmacht spread itself like a stain across Europe, taking France, with Britain in its crosshairs.
The passive Neville Chamberlain (played by Ronald Pickup), whose name is now synonymous with appeasement, has resigned as prime minister. This compelling, absorbing film dramatizes how Churchill, with eloquence, resolve and a modicum of recrimination, tempers his political enemies and girds his nation for the frightful time that lies ahead.
As Churchill, Gary Oldman has already won Best Actor trophies at the Screen Actors Guild Awards and the Golden Globes. An Oscar seems inevitable, a well-earned honor. The difference between Oldman’s performance and that of Brian Cox in Churchill is infinitesimal. Both are extraordinary, but Oldman is Oldman: a thespian-chameleon who has devoured the roles of Lee Harvey Oswald (JFK), Dracula, a cud-chewing southern senator in The Contender and Sirius Black in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
In impressive, undetectable prosthetics, Oldman inhabits his Churchill with gusto — the statesman’s mood, his machinations; not so much his voice but his manner, as the prime minister fights the pronounced opposition of his dithering, chagrined predecessor, Chamberlain, and the former P.M.’s second, Viscount Halifax, played by Stephen Dillane. For dramatic purposes, these two men pose a political roadblock against the more aggressive reaction to the specter of a Nazi invasion favored by Churchill.
Written by Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything), Darkest Hour is history as witness to the British parliamentary system, which, in contrast to our own, is quite bracing — tails, high collars, morning coats, brandy and cigars notwithstanding.
Outside that preserve of preeminent men is Churchill’s guiding light, the tiller that steadies his journey: his wife, Clementine. As was Miranda Richardson in the earlier Churchill film, Kristin Scott Thomas is priceless as Churchill’s rock, a woman remarkable in her own right. Other standouts are Lily James as Churchill’s devoted (and sometimes put upon) assistant, Elizabeth Layton, and Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI, whose stutter is played down, almost nonexistent, in this movie. The focus here is Churchill, and England’s fate.
Now, nearly 80 years since World War II erupted, a quartet of films — Churchill, The Finest, Dunkirk and Darkest Hour — join an earlier Oscar winner, The King’s Speech, as monuments to how Britain survived the Nazi onslaught, films brought to the screen by England’s very best directors and actors.
See Gary Oldman in a rousing portrayal of a towering historical figure. Maybe the only thing that rivals a resonant film presentation is immersion into an era through reading, an experience reserved for those who love the written word. For all, there are films like this that make history an aural, colorful, living experience. And win Academy Awards in the process.